This evening, all across what used to be called the Holy Land, Christmas celebrations will be held in ancient, weathered churches. The most emblematic of these celebrations will, no doubt, be the one held in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem itself.
I was born in Bethlehem, as strange as those words sound here, in Boston, so far away from the original site of the Christian story, this Anglo Christianity so foreign to the way we celebrated the three Christmases in our part of the world. As Nada Atrash writes in the essay below, tonight marks the first of these three Christmases–the English, the Greek, and the Armenian. And though my Christmas is almost a month away–January 19–tonight opens onto a path back to childhood memories when the words Holy Land carried a strangely sweet, innocent meaning.
I am pleased to post Atrash’s moving account of the Christmas of her childhood and what an ordeal it has become for the local populations today. She wrote this account especially for this blog. Thank you, Nada. The photographs are from the Center for Cultural Heritage and Preservation, in Bethlehem.
May all your Christmases be joyous, and in several languages and traditions.~~
Christmas in Bethlehem
by Nada Atrash
My late grandfather was the mayor of Beit Sahour, a town east of Bethlehem, from 1977 to 2000, and I grew up as his spoiled granddaughter. The best part of the Western Christmas as we call it, or the English Christmas, was accompanying my grandfather on December 24 to welcome the Costus (Custodian) of the Holy Land at Mar Elias Convent located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and drive with the congregation to Manger Square. The Status Quo implies that the Mayors of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, along with notables from the two towns and from Bethlehem, would welcome the Costus of the Holy Land at the convent, which was the point that separated Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and that the Mayor of Bethlehem would welcome His Beatitude upon the latter’s arrival to Manger Square. The same would happen at the two other Christmases on January 6 and 18.
The congregation would pass Tantur and Rachel’s Tomb to Bethlehem. Today, the Wall separates Bethlehem after Rachel’s Tomb, and few officials are allowed to cross to Mar Elias Convent to wait for the Costus or the Patriarchs. The rest of the congregation waits for them at the gate near Dar Sansur, which is located around two kilometers to the north of Mar Elias. This gate has been especially designed in the Wall and is open only for such occasions and for visits by foreign officials. This way, they do not have to pass through the terrible check points which serve more as military borders and boundaries of imprisonment. At the check point the waiting group mixes with tens of Israeli soldiers, whose main job is to prevent anybody from crossing the gate. The irony of this scene is not lost on anyone! A trip that used to take 10 minutes in my childhood can best be describe as an exchange of war prisoners at the borders.
The majority of Palestinians used to attend the midnight mass at the Church of Notre Dame in Jerusalem, and these days this sounds like an impossible dream; you will have to walk for thirty minutes in spiral loops in order to reach the check point, go through metal detectors for inspection, just like the airports but with more sensitive machines. You will have to take off your belt and shoes, and then through documents inspection, after which you will have to cross to the other side and find a taxi to drop you to your destination. And will have to go back again through a similar experience but with less trouble. The trip is exhausting and sometimes you have to wait for hours to pass. All of this dream is possible in case you are lucky enough to obtain a permit!!!!!
The Jerusalem that I used to visit as a child every weekend is now a dream that comes true to Palestinian children if they and their families have the permit, and they are financially capable of paying the expenses of the trip. It usually costs around 120 USD just to travel from the check point and back, and because neither permits nor the money required for the trip is available, Jerusalem’s sister town of Bethlehem has become a destination that is accessible only through the text books and television screens.
Still, the town of Bethlehem remains the focal point of Christmas, and festivals and celebration there are an irreplaceable experience. Bethlehemites are hemmed in by the Wall and therefore have no easy way to attend the midnight mass at St. Catherine’s Church or the Church of the Nativity, but the spirit of Christmas is all around us. Tens of scout groups welcome the Costus or the Patriarchs at Star Street, which is believed to be the road followed by Mary and Joseph, and also the Wise Men on their trips to Bethlehem. Today, thousands of people gather for the event in the historic Manger Square. Choirs of different nationalities, including local group, start to chant for Christmas at the Square at 7:00 in the evening and continue till midnight.
Celebrations in Bethlehem start on the first advent Sunday of the Western Christmas and continue until the Armenian Christmas, making Bethlehem a capital for Christmas for a period of two months. Where else in the world can you have such a privilege? But this extended Christmas period can be a burden too, but people of the Mediterranean are known to be hospitable, and in Bethlehem we do it best at Christmas.