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Christmas in Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity

As families around the world celebrate Christmas Day, there is no shortage of visual distraction and bustling activity. Children may be circling the Christmas tree, eyeing the size, shape and of course the nametags on the gifts underneath. The male members of the family, each with a frothy brew in hand, may be discussing politics or sports with the fervor of seasoned analysts. While the whole family watches the progress in the kitchen as the countdown begins for a family feast that features the beloved dishes that have been lovingly prepared for several generations.

In the background, an illuminated TV may cast a muted glow on the scene, until someone recognizes another familiar scene: that of thousands of pilgrims celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It’s difficult not to freeze-frame the moment: If that historic birth of Jesus Christ had not taken place, none of this would be taking place. There would be no Christmas in Bethlehem or anywhere around the world because there would be no Christ to celebrate.

Birth of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ Prince of Peace, a painting by Child Prodigy Akiane Kramarik
Jesus Christ Prince of Peace, a painting
by Child Prodigy Akiane Kramarik

The holy city where Jesus is presumed to have been born drew about 100,000 visitors in 2011, the most visitors in over a decade. Often holding candles and further illuminated by the lights strung overhead in the streets, they parade through Manger Square, the plaza outside the Church of the Nativity, which is thought to be the oldest church in the world. Anchored by a 50-foot Christmas tree, the square serves as the main gathering place in the city and where pilgrims often sing hymns and carols throughout the season for Christmas in Bethlehem.

Situated just six miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem continues to be the source of fierce tension between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Yet the city at Christmastime rises above the political fray by demonstrating no preference – and certainly no disdain – for different Christian denominations. Multiple church services and processions are held for Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopians and Armenians, among others. During Christmas in Bethlehem there is a peace that belongs to everyone and to no one in particular – a fitting, non-secular reminder for that freeze-frame moment.

For example, daily processions for Roman Catholics take place from St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the Orthodox Basilica of the Nativity. On Christmas Eve, “low masses” begin at midnight and continue throughout most of the night. At 10 a.m. on Christmas Day, a pontifical Mass takes place, followed by a pilgrimage to the Latin Chapel of Shepherds' Field.

These activities, focused as they are on Christmas in Bethlehem at Christmas Eve, tell only part of the story of Bethlehem’s holiday benevolence to worldwide travelers. The season actually lasts about two months since Roman Catholics and Protestants first celebrate Advent, which begins four weeks before Christmas. Greek, Syrian and other Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6 and Armenian Christians celebrate Christmas on January 18.

Israeli and Palestinian Tension Around Bethlehem

Modern day Bethlehem
Modern day Bethlehem

As they participate in the activities, smart and alert tourists are aware of the tensions associated with visiting Bethlehem, right down to surveying the license plate on the taxi they enter. Israeli or Palestinian?

The Palestinians were rightfully alarmed after Israel built a barrier around three sides of Bethlehem; the holy city draws about 2 million tourists a year, and Palestine officials worried that severely restricting their movement would also restrict the tourist money the city depends upon.

But as last year’s record attendance to Christmas in Bethlehem proved, their worry was for naught, for determination and resilience have been known to trump hardship. It’s a lesson that Bethlehem has exuded since the world’s most famous Biblical couple – Mary and Joseph – remained undeterred upon hearing that there was “no room at the inn.” In choosing a stable for the birth of Jesus Christ – placing him in a trough among cows and other farm animals -- they forever placed a poignant star of spirit over the city of Bethlehem.

Written by Dianne Weller

Works Cited
Christmas in Bethlehem. <>
Hundreds pack Bethlehem church for Christmas Mass. <>
Over 100,000 Celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. <>

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