Traveling to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian ‘West Bank’ isn’t on everyone’s Christmas list. However, over one million people make the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was born, every year.
Bethlehem is lovely to visit any time of year, but during Christmastime, it is especially magical. The city is elegantly decorated in lights and the smell of chestnuts roasting warms every corner.
The 50ft (15m) tree is lit every year in early December, marking the beginning of the Christmas season, and continues to stay lit until early January, since certain Orthodox sects hold different beliefs concerning Jesus’ birth (and Julian vs Gregorian calendar issues).
So, until the end of the Epiphany, or the Twelfth night of Christmas (January 6th), the Christmas decorations will remain, just in case you’re arriving late to Bethlehem! (or at the right time!)
The tree lighting ceremony in early December along attracts thousands of tourists, both Palestinian and international. For hours, these pilgrims sing Christmas carols in English, Arabic, Greek, and many other languages.
Throughout all of December and January, there are various other concerts and events in Manger Square. There are events in the Shepherds Field’s of Beit Sahour as well, where the Angels announced Jesus’ birth, and also the neighboring village of Beit Jala. The Syrian community of Bethlehem offers Aramaic services and lessons; the community strives to preserve the ancient language Jesus spoke.
Acts range from flag-bearing bagpipers to acoustic performances to live demonstrations by local and international artists and religious figures. The Palestinian Authority police are very friendly and do their best to maintain order during the Christmas chaos. Bethlehem is incredibly safe, the only danger is getting smothered by Christmas spirit!
Christian Palestinians are very proud to host the celebration, so Palestinian cultural events also take place during this time. Olive-wood carvings, bottled ‘sand-art’, knitted goods and other Palestinian handicrafts are for sale in the shops, where smiling vendors will gladly negotiate the prices.
A large Nativity scene is staged in the square as well.
Of course, no visit to Bethlehem is complete without visiting the Church of the Nativity, but be prepared to wait at least an hour to get inside! For a small fee, a hired guide will allow you to bypass the line and show you directly to the “Star of Bethlehem”, Jesus’ birthplace, which is in the grotto under the church. The church was erected in the 300’s and is considered one of the oldest churches in the world, though little to none of the original structure has been preserved.
Christmas Eve is when the real magic happens. Thousands gather in Manger Square for ‘Midnight Mass’, or attend smaller services at Bethlehem’s many churches and monasteries. Reservations must be made in advance for seats, but there is plenty of room for standing.
On Christmas, there are masses throughout the day, however, most of the locals are at home celebrating and sleeping after staying up late on Christmas Eve.
From the Philippines to Florida, Christmas in Bethlehem brings people from all over the world together. Regardless of faith, anyone can enjoy Bethlehem’s seasonal markets, concerts, and events.
For more on Palestine, check out Weekends in the West Bank (Part 1)
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