Selfies and Marching Bands: Christmas in Bethlehem

The snow here has melted, but the town is cloaked in contrasts as thousands of pilgrims flock to the storied site of Jesus’ birthplace.

Less than two weeks after one of the most powerful snowstorms to hit the Holy Land in a century, Bethlehem, the West Bank’s biggest tourist attraction, is a mystifying sight to behold. The snow here has melted, but the town is cloaked in contrasts as thousands of pilgrims flock to the storied site of Jesus’ birthplace against a backdrop of escalating tensions.

Here, a 50-foot Christmas tree stands across from the majestic Mosque of Omar, whose minaret towers over Manger Square and its crowds. Once immune to the commercial aspects of Christmas, “The Little Town of Bethlehem” this year is filled with revelers in Santa Claus outfits and hawkers selling balloons.

As the celebration got under way last night, Palestinian marching bands paraded through the jam-packed square playing “Jingle Bells” on the bagpipes, and young partygoers dressed in Santa costumes congregated outside noisy bars.

Meanwhile, inside the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is said to have been born, robed priests were solemnly preparing for Midnight Mass. Worshippers inside took a moment to pray – some snapping selfies with their iPads in the pews.

The church this year is saddled with obvious signs of construction. The first phase of a major restoration has just begun – with the decision by the Palestinian Authority to commence restoration of the 1,700-year-old basilica right before Christmas baffling some visitors.

“I did expect the church to be more beautiful and restored,” said Alev Sonmez, a 32-year-old Turkish Muslim who came to experience Christmas in Bethlehem. “I don’t find it right that people who come for pilgrimage have to walk through ruins.”

Others didn’t mind the run-down conditions of Jesus’s birthplace.

Visiting with a group of 25 American family members, 15-year-old Rebecca Hipp of Pinehurst, North Carolina, marveled, “There’s something about the oldness that I expected, but it’s still surprising. I’ve never seen a landscape this old.”

A short walk from Manger Square lies the Milk Grotto Church, where tradition says the Virgin Mary stopped to nurse baby Jesus on their journey to Egypt. “It’s like coming home; it all started here” says Nimmy Thudianplackal, 27, who traveled to the iconic Bethlehem church with a group of South Indian pilgrims like herself.

Coming home is exactly what the City of Bethlehem has in mind: The theme of this year’s celebration is “Come Home for Christmas,” a slogan on display in Manger Square. “From a small grotto in Bethlehem a message of love, hope, justice and peace was spread all over the world,” Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said in her Christmas message.

In one dark, final contrast, as Bethlehem prayed for peace, Christmas celebrations this year are being held amid escalating tensions in the region. Hours after a Palestinian in Gaza shot and killed a Defense Ministry employee on Christmas Eve, Israel attacked six separate sites linked to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. According to Gaza hospital officials, a 3-year-old Palestinian girl was killed in one of the strikes.

Against this backdrop, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal delivered Midnight Mass, telling congregants: “We are invited to be optimistic and to renew our faith that this land, home of the three monotheistic religions, will one day become a haven of peace for all people.”

Yardena Schwartz