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Bethlehem is ready for its long Christmas season

December 23, 2022

After a pause in festivities during the coronavirus pandemic, Bethlehem — revered as the birthplace of Jesus — is ready again for its long Christmas season.

Two nuns stand in front of a manger scene
After two years of the COVID pandemic, visitors are flocking back to Bethlehem to celebrate ChristmasImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

A steady flow of people proceed through the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with smartphones in hand to capture every moment. Christmas is the busiest time of the year for the West Bank town. And, while most of the world celebrates Christmas once, here in Bethlehem — revered as the birthplace of Jesus — people celebrate the holiday three times.

"We have the Armenians, the Latins, the Greek Orthodox. Everybody has their own calendar, so this makes the date of Christmas different," Franciscan Father Rami Asakrieh, the Catholic parish priest at the Church of the Nativity, told DW, referring to the three major denominations that share the church. "We happily celebrate Christmas for a very long period. We talk about two months of celebration."

Bethlehem prepares for Christmas

And this year, Rami said, it will be more joyful as visitors are back. "This feast is special. Because of the coronavirus, there were no pilgrims, Christmas was without people, it was only spiritual, without the festivities, without the joy and happiness that we feel in this holy city."

Now, local and foreign visitors are back. Many take selfies in front of the tall, sparkly Christmas tree and the Nativity scene on Manger Square, just outside the church. Food stalls selling corn and cotton candy wait for customers on this mild and sunny December day.

"We came from Michigan in the US, we are Iraqis. It's a very nice feeling to be here, it's a very nice atmosphere, this is a place where Jesus was born, and it's important that everybody can come to see and to visit," said Nawal, visiting as part of a group.

Naimeh Ghassan, a young Palestinian, traveled from the center of the occupied West Bank to take pictures of the Christmas atmosphere. "The preparations in Bethlehem for Christmas are very nice, its just beautiful to be here," Ghassan told DW.

Catholics kick off Christmas celebrations

First in line for the celebrations are the Roman Catholics, also known as the Latins, together with the Protestant churches, who mark Christmas on December 24 and 25. They reference the Gregorian calendar that was created by Pope Gregory in the 16th century. On December 24, it is tradition that the Palestinian Scout troops' marching band accompanies the Latin patriarch from Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity, followed by a midnight Mass.

Father Issa stands in the Church of the Nativity as a group of visitors gathers behind him
Father Issa Thaljieh, of the Greek Orthodox Church, is happy to see visitors again at the Church of the NativityImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Next up is the Greek Orthodox Church alongside the smaller Syriac Orthodox and Coptic churches on January 6 and 7. The Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar, which was created during the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 B.C.

Father Issa Thaljieh, the Greek Orthodox parish priest at the Church of the Nativity, said that during Christmas festivities, every congregation maintains its prayer times and rituals according to a strict "status quo." This set of rules determines the rights and duties of all denominations sharing the church — including procession times and cleaning rituals. 

It's not always without tensions, but "when you live in Bethlehem, you have to live together. We live in Bethlehem as Christians and Muslims, and we live in the church as different Christian denominations," said the Bethlehem-born priest.

What extends Christmas season the longest in Bethlehem is the fact that the Armenian community celebrates its Christmas on January 18 and 19. "We are the last ones to celebrate Christmas," said Superior Asbed Balian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, adding that the Armenians share altars with the smaller churches for the Christmas festivities.  

But apart from the rituals and traditions, Father Asbed said that "we also have to remind ourselves what is the meaning of Christmas. That Christmas is also the time of thinking of others and sharing things together."

The Arab Orthodox Union Club Scout Group rehearses with bagpipes
Marching bands with bagpipes, including the Arab Orthodox Union Club Scout Group, are a tradition at ChristmasImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Difficult year for Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Many residents in town join the festivities, no matter their background. "For us it is kind of normal, I think we are just lucky to have so many Christmases," said Mirna Bannoura, who plays the drums with the Arab Orthodox Union Club Scout Group in Beit Sahour.

As a young Orthodox Christian, her Christmas feast isn't until January. But she will join her Catholic friends to celebrate on December 24. "Without the Scouts, there is no Christmas. When people hear us, it just brings a smile to their faces," she said.

This Christmas season wraps up a difficult year for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the United Nations, 2022 is set to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN started tracking fatalities in 2005, with at least 140 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank killed. Meanwhile, Israel's Internal Security Agency says 31 Israelis were killed. When a Palestinian youth from a refugee camp in Bethlehem was recently killed during a raid by the Israeli army, the town's Christmas tree remained dark for one evening; restaurants and shops went on a general strike.

"The situation here affects you, it can scar you," said Bannoura. "I feel that the Palestinian people are always looking for the one, small, happy dot to see a light in this whole black life we are sometimes living."

A woman walks past a mural depicting slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh
Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, depicted here in a mural, was killed during an Israeli raid in the West Bank in MayImage: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

And Christmas is one such happy occasion. For some families, it means the possibility for those who live in the West Bank to reunite with relatives and friends in Gaza's small Christian community. And for those in Gaza, Christmas represents their hope to be granted Israeli permits to allow visits to family in the West Bank, to which passage is usually restricted.

This year, Israeli authorities issued about such 640 permits. However, 200 applications were rejected for "security reasons," according to an Israeli security official.

Palestinians from Bethlehem and other West Bank cities are also waiting for Israeli permits to visit family, friends and holy sites in nearby Jerusalem — which is separated from Bethlehem by a controversial concrete separation barrier.

Social activities to support the community

Others people enjoy the many social activities around town this time of year, like games of bingo. At the Latin Church in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, the bingo evening is both a social event and an opportunity to raise funds for charities and to support less fortunate people in the community.

"We play bingo because it is fun during these days, it's a change of routine. But it is also about support, for the Scouts, for the orphans, for charities," said Hiyam Yacoub, who came with friends and family.

Instead of winning fancy prizes, people here go home with household items that will help them make it through the difficult economic situation: washing powder, dishwashing liquid or packets of tissues. Bethlehem, a city that ordinarily lives from tourism, has been hit hard in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the ongoing conflict.

A man speaks into a microphone at a bingo event, as people sitting at nearby tables listen
Bingo evenings are both a social event and an opportunity to raise funds for charitiesImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

At the Church of Nativity, Father Issa, the Greek Orthodox parish priest, smiles at the long line of visitors waiting to enter the church's grotto. There, a silver star marks the place where Jesus is believed to have been born.

"We have people from all over the world again coming to this church to see where exactly Jesus was born, and to feel the spirit of Christmas," said Father Issa, whose name in Arabic means "Jesus."

"They want to see the star, they want to touch the walls, to pray and praise the Lord — because in Bethlehem, it's all about Christmas."

Edited by: Martin Kuebler