O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
More than 2,000 years have passed since the first Christmas. Bethlehem is not a little town anymore, but an important Palestinian city; carols fill the air and bright twinkling lights set the city aglow, during this time of the year. What’s Christmas like in the town where it all began? If you’ve been to Bethlehem at Christmas, you know that words are not enough to describe the feeling. “I have attended midnight mass at the Nativity Church for the last six years and will attend this year, as well. It’s remarkable, wonderful and difficult to explain; but I consider my wife and myself lucky to be present at the church that commemorates the birth of Jesus year after year,” Samir Araman, a Palestinian Christian believer, tries to capture the moment for me.
Christmas is celebrated on December 25th by the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, on 6th January by the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians, and 19th January by the Armenian Christians. Celebrations in Bethlehem commence on December 1st, when the Christmas tree at Manger Square (the plaza outside the Church of the Nativity) is set up and lit by the mayor. Excitement builds up as people count down from 10 to zero in Arabic; the tree is lit, people’s cheers ring in your ears and fireworks go off–green, red and gold–while Joy to the World, O Come all ye Faithful, and other carols play in the background. December is the month of concerts, choirs, dances, theatre performances, Christmas markets, activities for children and more. Manger Square, at this time, is like a big market, with people selling roasted chestnuts, corn and other fast foods. This is also where a big star is lit and carols are sung before the grand Midnight mass.
The star is believed to mark the spot where Jesus was born. —(Image courtesy: Avril-Ann Braganza)
Sometime in the afternoon of December 24th, a grand parade with uniformed scouts (girls and boys of all ages) with drums, bagpipes, batons, banners and flags waving merrily marches down the cobbled streets to Manger Square, led by the Latin Patriarch carrying a statue of baby Jesus.Little children perch atop posts along the way, for a better view. At midnight, there’s mass at St. Catherine’s Church in different languages— Arabic (the main language); English; Italian and French, which is oft attended by foreigners, dignitaries, officials from the consulate and other VIPs. Those without tickets to hear mass inside the Church, camp out in Manger Square, where a large projection screen broadcasts the Eucharistic proceedings. Almost half the Christian world attends, with many arriving in the wee hours of the morning to secure a decent spot. At 9 am, the next day, the parish priest celebrates Christmas Mass in Arabic for the people of Bethlhem. Despite the joie de vivre, the police presence is hard to ignore. Travel from Jerusalem is likely to involve going through a military check point.
On Christmas day, there are private parties and family gatherings where Santa (a family member or a hired hand) makes an appearance at homes. He is also seen on the streets, cheerfully distributing chocolates and candies to children and people in passing cars.
After mass on the 25th, families get together for a ‘fancy spread’ with dishes that aren’t prepared daily, like lamb or mutton (otherwise expensive), cooked with grape leaves, and stuffed zucchini.Liquor chocolates and cake with coffee are specialities. At night, youngsters go out partying, as is the norm world over.
“The twinkling lights are pretty and the festive mood is great, but what makes it special, is being in the place where Jesus was born. Pilgrims flock from all over and wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ in different languages... It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling to be in Bethlehem and to be a part of this amazing celebration,” Alihandra Montanez explains.
Inputs from Ronni Ishaky, Samir Araman, Alihandra Montanez and Eli Kedmi