“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Camus
What an experience, Christmas in Bethlehem. There are really no words to describe the feeling! My friend who’s been visiting, myself, and two friends from here drove to Bethlehem about noon on Christmas Eve day, along with the thousands of other cars and tour buses. We made it there by 1:30, had to park a bazillion miles away, and then we followed the huge mass of people walking up to the Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. This was a ridiculous procession – people were lining the walls of the narrow streets, there were thousands of people walking, following the Scout bands that were playing in the parade, and then add to that some VIP cars who were allowed to park near the Manger Square but were stuck in the same narrow streets as our procession, and the hundreds of kids who carried balloons (apparently balloons are the way to celebrate Christmas here!)… I seriously thought that a fight would break out, or someone would get trampled. But everyone stayed calm, plus there was a Palestinian security force guy every 5 feet attempting to keep order.
Later, I found out it was record numbers of people, the highest number of tourists for Christmas in a decade. At the time, it just seemed exciting! We finally got to Manger Square, a section of which was all blockaded off for the procession of the 300 priests from Jerusalem and the Latin Patriarch to walk through the Square into the Church of the Nativity (built to commemorate where Jesus was born). We walked on one side of the blockade, until my friend realized that his other friend was on the other side, so we sweet-talked the security force guy to let us cut through the blockaded off center of the square to get to the other side. (Story of the night – the security forces were actually very professional, but if you knew one of them, or had a decent enough reason to need to ‘stretch’ the rules, they’d let you. For the most part. Not when Abbas was driving through!)
Watching that procession was fun, though it was more fun/sweet to watch the old nuns climb on the large stone blocks by the entrance to the Church of the Nativity to wave excitedly at the Latin Patriarch.
We then walked all the way back to our car, went to lunch, then our friend with the car had to leave to go back to Jerusalem, so he let us out where we had parked before, and we walked alllll the way back to Manger Square. (Second story of the night – we did a lot of walking.) We did some shopping, enjoyed the atmosphere (though the temperature dropped like it does every night as soon as the sun sets at 4:30pm, so ‘enjoyed’ perhaps isn’t the right word, though I had on 4 layers, including one layer of under armour), and drank coffee and ate sweets. Then our other friend from Ramallah had a friend visiting so he drove down to Bethlehem and we met them for coffee (yes, we walked all the way back to where cars were allowed to park), and then walked back to Manger Square – by this time it was about 10pm, and we wanted to make sure we were positioned well for the midnight mass!
You had to get tickets to be allowed into St. Catherine’s Church (inside the Church of the Nativity), which mostly go to important people at the embassies, etc, plus Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad are in attendance, so it’s kind of a big deal. We, thus, did not receive tickets, so we wanted to be up front by the massive screen projecting the mass in the Square. But, I was so surprised – the number of people dropped drastically from the daytime to the midnight mass. I would have thought that there would be an increase of people just for the midnight mass – isn’t that what you come for?! But that meant we were lucky enough to be in the front row for the screen, and the mass was just beautiful. They were translating it in the Square from Latin into Arabic, and then the sermon itself was in Arabic, and I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to understand about 75% of it! It was a wonderfully peaceful message and yet a call on people around the world to work for peace.
We left Manger Square about 12:45am and we were dropped off at my place about 2am. We promptly fell asleep and woke up on Christmas day almost not believing what we had done the day before.
- “WEST BANK: Bethlehem glows on Christmas Eve” and related posts (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- Record crowds in Bethlehem for Christmas (calgaryherald.com)
- Bethlehem a symbol of peace on Christmas Eve (nationalpost.com)