This Christmas, I ate humus and falafel and drank sweet tea in Bethlehem’s Manager Square.
The sense of unity and celebration here felt worlds away from the misery and violence that has gripped the region for much of this year. For Palestinian Christians, this was a special year for them and many told me they’d be celebrating. “This year we were given hope because finally the world realized that we’re a state,” said Nora Carmi from Kairos Palestine, a group of Palestinian Christians representing a variety of churches.
Last month, following a vote that upgraded the Palestinian Authority’s status to observer state, the UN recognized Bethlehem as being in Palestine for the first time. The UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, also awarded the Church of the Nativity World Heritage status under Palestine in June.
It was quite a party in Manger Square. It began with a colorful parade of local scout groups, who marched past the Church of the Nativity to the drone of bagpipes and beating of drums. As the sun set, the Muslim call to prayer echoed through the square while a brass band played Jingle Bells.
Under a 55-foot Christmas tree and the twinkle of lights, performers from around the world sang Christmas songs and told stories from the Bible. Those lucky enough to get a ticket to the grand finale here in Bethlehem packed into the Nativity complex to attend midnight mass at St. Catherine’s Church led by the Latin Patriarch, the most senior Catholic figure in the Holy Land. He said earlier that this year’s festivities celebrated both “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.”
On Christmas Day, pilgrims from around the world patiently waited to enter the Church of the Nativity to catch a glimpse of the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. Pilgrims mixed with locals who’d set up makeshift stalls selling everything from hot corn to candy floss. A group of tourists from Europe posed for photos with an African group who’d arrived at the church in traditional dress. Occasionally, those waiting would break into song in their local language. I found myself swept up in a circle of Indians who’d formed a circle clapping and singing. Curious Palestinians wandered over to film them on their cell phones. I bumped in to a couple from Seattle who’d just attended mass in Arabic. “This kind of message is universal,” they told me, “especially here.”
But a huge sign above Manger Square reminded us of the tough year here in the region. It read “this holiday season bring light to Gaza and Syria,” urging visitors to donate money. A number of stores around the church sell a traditional olive wood carving that depicts a Nativity scene separated by a huge wall, a reminder of the Israeli checkpoints you need to enter to get here.
For Palestinian Christians, Christmas lost a bit of its sparkle this year. “We don’t know how many homes Santa will visit this year,” Palestinian tour guide George Rishmawi told me.
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