Christmas in Bethlehem

Yesterday it was Christmas Day, the 25th of December. For the past few weeks, I have gone through a massive missing-Christmas-atmosphere kind of syndrome, certainly ascribable to the European legacy of my past lives. I now live in Tel Aviv, which is definitely not the city where you will encounter signs of an approaching Christmas, and this year I could not afford to fly abroad. I had to look elsewhere.

I started by driving all the way to Haifa for the Festival of Festivals, a four-weekend long celebration of Christianity-Judaism-Islam festivities, just to find disappointment in the form of an overcrowded food market where people tried to steal pieces of halva from each other and to swim across at the sound of bombastic techno music. I then turned to Jaffa, where the main signs of Christmas were shops selling Santa’s beards and red felt hats to cater to the Christian Arab Israelis (yes, there are – many), the Russian immigrants and a growing community of Filippino workers; I bought a beard, a hat and some decorations for the house, but I did not feel any closer to the spirit of Christmas I was longing for. In Jaffa I also stumbled upon a Hindi spoken Christmas gathering of the Indian Christian community, where I marveled at the elegant sarees of the women but also did not find much I could connect to.

Indians gathering in Jaffa for Christmas

With growing disappointment, I resorted to making my own Christmas alive. I dusted off the Christmas tree, prepared a special playlist of Christmas carols and set off for the ritual decorating. But I was alone, with a Jewish boyfriend occupied with lighting Hanukkah candles and a wicked cat already plotting how to dismantle my creation as soon as I would turn my back on it.

The truth is I missed people, someone sharing my own, naive, childish enthusiasm. Therefore I was very happy when a Canadian friend invited me over for a Christmas party, where we tried to recreate some Christmas Eve atmosphere for the benefit of other displaced Europeans and of some open-minded Jewish friends who wanted to see what this Christmas was all about. The result was a very enjoyable evening but not much alike any Christmas I store in memory (someone even brought fake snow in a can, out of which we tried to have a snowballs fight and to build a snowman with modest results).

Unable to find a satisfactory Christmas atmosphere in Israel (a mix of nostalgia, utopia and longing for the non-existent), I decided to go directly to the source, and to cross over to Bethlehem, the small city in the Palestinian territories where it all began. I went alone, because my friends are either Israelis unable to legally enter a designated area C in the West Bank, or busy people with busy jobs that won’t give them a break on December 25th  just because the rest of the World is at home celebrating this semi-pagan festivity.

O come all ye Faithful

So off I went: bus to Jerusalem (1 hour), then bus to Damascus gate in the Arab quarter (30 mins wait plus 20 mins ride), Arab minivan to the checkpoint (about 20 mins), 30 mins at the checkpoint  looking for an Israeli border officer who was not asleep, then walking through a series of mechanical swirling gates, then looking for the exit in all the wrong places until being rescued by an American photographer on his way out. 5 minutes wandering at the height and ugliness of the separation wall, 10 mins arguing with Palestinian taxi drivers who tried to screw me over the price (they started with 100 shekels, settled down for 20, real price being probably 3NIS), 20 mins stationed in the designated cab who promptly deviated from the main road to try to convince me to

A: visit Hebron (some 70 km away)

B: tour all of the Christian sites with him

C: visit his friend shop who had “the best prices in town”.

I finally arrived at Manger square, 3 hours and 15 mins after I left my apartment in Tel Aviv. It was pouring rain.

Some signs of devotion at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem

The rain continued merciless all through the day and part of the evening. I did not find much to do in the city. The few events scheduled for Christmas got canceled because of the weather. The imposing Peace Center on the main square was closed. The Nativity Church, the biggest pilgrims drawing site in Bethlehem, was surprisingly quiet, with no mass or group prayer. Tourists from many countries were wandering around the several rooms and grottos of the complex, but very few displayed an overt intent to pray.

People were mostly busy photographing every corner and every stone around, with or without their persona next to it, ignoring the supposedly sanctity of the place. The marble stone at the heart of the basilica, where baby Jesus is believed to have come to the world, was enjoying the same destiny, guarded by a cordon of Franciscan monks who urged the line of visitors not to stop, not to touch anything, but interestingly allowing pictures, turning the experience into something quite grotesque: walk by, click and go.

Some nuns walked around yawning, showing signs of tiredness from the previous night of celebration. I watched this carousel for about one hour, then I left.

The streets of the old city where mainly empty, due to the horrible weather. Shops were mostly closed and tourists started to make their way back into Jerusalem, or huddled together in the few open bars on the square to get away from the rain. Walking around with my umbrella, I somehow manage to strike a conversations with some locals – all men – but the thing died out pretty quickly with the scenario going as follow:

(Palestinian) where you are form – (me) Italy – (Palestinian) welcome welcome – (me)  thank you -(Palestinian) I have some cousin working in Milano – (me) nice – (Palestinian) maybe can you give me Visa to Italy – (me) what? – (Palestinian) yes, you help me go to Italy – (me, trying to change the subject) do you happen to know where is the Shepherd’s field [a Christian site]? – (Palestinian) oh very far and today maybe closed… so you can give me Visa? – (me, struggling) but isn’t there a tourist information center in Bethlehem? – (Palestinian, chuckling) oh no sorry, Madame.

I had heard from a friend that there would be a Concert for Peace at 7 pm. I put all my remaining hopes to find some Christmas spirit in this event, and all my remaining resourcefulness in trying to find out where it was. No one – tourist or Palestinian – seemed to have heard about neither the concert, nor the convention center where it was supposed to take place. I phone called the number I had printed out from the internet. asking for directions which were given to me in surprisingly good English, and even found a taxi driver willing to take me there, but I did not want to go alone as it was already dark.

So I kidnapped an Italian and a Swedish visitor from the Youth Hostel (who were trying to dry their only pair of socks which got trenched in the rain on a perilous-looking electric stove) and convinced them to come with me.  We drove for a long time in the pitch dark, until the taxi driver ominously said: “This, end of Bethlehem. After: Hebron“, at which point we had no idea what to do. Just then, looking arounds, we saw that out of the darkness on the left glowed a huge building on top of a hill with some flashy decorations on it. A massive, impressive construction with no connection to the rest of the city: The Convention Palace of Bethlehem!

We approached the lobby realizing that this was not going to be some kind of hippish event with a local band put together by Swiss activists, but rather a formal gala with elegantly dressed people, a number of waiters and servants running around in black suites, receptionists, flower arrangements, security people, and this incredible production crew directly from the USA. I was quite in shock for the striking contrast between the general humbleness of the people and streets of Bethlehem and this incredibly posh place with wealthy individuals enjoying “a concert for humanity” in a place that most of the locals will never be able to set foot inside. Back home, I was able to read more about the project, which is in his nature both ambitious and beautiful: to change people awareness through inspirational music. Quoting from the project’s website:

A Global Musical Prayer for Peace from the heart of the world’s three monotheistic religions. Project-Peace On Earth is a digitally distributed global Musical Prayer for Peace that enables the world’s most spiritually inspired and famed musicians to perform from comfort of their home, a personal or historic sacred site, while on tour or during a concert or from the central host concert stage of Manger Square, Bethlehem, and plug into a unified global broadcast for peace[…] Project-Peace on Earth, LLC is a Los Angeles-based organization promoting what will be a worldwide telecast concert of superstar musicians performing inspiring and sacred music from the some of the most mystical sites on the planet including from the host venue, Manger Square Bethlehem in Palestine.

Enigma on stage

We therefore saw artists who had been flown from all over the world to perform music which was recorded and broadcasted in streaming, alternated with some specially created tacky footage with slogans about the world, peace and inner peace. All very nice and well-intentioned, but those who know me can see why I could not adhere with my heart, and those who don’t can try to imagine why by watching the available video online.

Apart from calling Enigma “one of the biggest rock bands of all times”, there were more serious issues which left me perplexed. After the concert, there was a nice buffet dinner for everybody, then the artists were bussed out to Jerusalem, to sleep in a good hotel outside of the Palestinian Territories. In which way did this super expensive production benefit the local community, I have no diea. As for the Convention Palace, I have found that it is a joint investment between Consolidated Contractors Company “CCC” and Palestine Investment Fund “PIF”, at the cost of 26 million US dollars.

So there it went, my-looking-for-Christmas-spirit day was coming to an end. Back in Jerusalem I had to wait half an hour in the back of a sherut taxi full of Haredi men, in an involuntary simulation of the segregation that is really taking places on some buses in this (democratic?) country – pious men in the front, impure woman at the back. I had time to think about what I had been through. I thought about how it is really more about people than places. I thought there no matter where you go, there can hardly be a real Christmas without your family caging you in the house of your childhood for two consecutive days of overeating, table games, mismatched presents, the unavoidable trip to a frozen church for the midnight mass, and all the joys and sorrow that being with your own kin brings about.

When I finally arrived in Tel Aviv Central Station, I flagged down a taxi. It was about 1 am. The smart driver looked at me, looked at some building behind me and asked me: Eich haya hamoadon, motek? (How was the party, sweetheart). I considered telling him all about my day, Bethlehem and the Palestinians begging me for a Visa, the unchained pilgrims turned photo obsessed, and the oddity of it all, but then I shrugged and just said “sababa” (ok).

This is Tel Aviv, after all.

6 thoughts on “Christmas in Bethlehem

  1. Let me get this straight, “real Xmas” is about “family caging you in your childhood house for 2 consecutive days of overeating, table games, mismatched presents, a trip to a frozen church for midnight mass & being w/family???” What makes that “real xmas?” Doesn’t “Christ” mean “anointed one,” as in “anointed messiah?” Doesn’t “mas” mean “body?” What does your list of adventures above have to do w/that? Even the Indian sarees are closer to a “body of the messiah” than your list! And if Bethlehem is a “Palestinian” territory (though in the Bible it’s part of the Land of Judah/Yehuda), then does that mean that Jesus was Palestinian? And if he WAS Palestinian, does that mean he wasn’t Jewish? Just remember that If he WASN’T Jewish, then he couldn’t be the messiah. I have a much better idea, read this
    http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/Christmas_TheRealStory.htm
    so you see where “xmas” REALLY came from! (Hint: it ain’t pretty).

    • Shalom lecha, thanks a lot for your comment. From your words, I assume you are a deeply religious man, which makes this exchange of opinions really unique, as in real life I find it extremely difficult to exchange opinions with Orthodox men (they are too busy avoiding me). I am very aware that Jesus, if he existed, was a Jew, and I am very aware that Christmas was a posthumous invention to cover up a pagan festivity that was already in place during the solstice of winter. The article you suggested me to read states the same. I parted from Christianity a long time ago, or rather the institutionalized Church of Rome, but I did grow up within a Christian household, and as you may have your stories connected to Rosh Hashana, Hanukkah or Purim, we also had our stories connected to the time of Christmas – the presents, the cold outside, the long hours of waiting etc. This is what I was referring to: a sort of side atmosphere that remains in you like a nostalgia forever. And that is why I could not find it anywhere in Israel: because obviously it has to do more with your upbringing than anything else.

  2. PS. Bethlehem is at all effects a Palestinian Territory. It does not mean that Jews were not living there in the past. Gallics where living in nowadays France in the past, but today no one calls France “Gallia”. Italy had many different peoples living there – French, Spanish, Arabs etc. but today it is just called “Italy” as you may be well aware.

    • Yeah, well, when Jordan attacked Israel in 1967 they lost Bethlehem.And only two countries ever even recognized Jordan’s OCCUPATION of Bethlehem, one of them was that “lover of human dignity,” PAKISTAN & the other was, I think, the former colonial Great Britain. Here’s international law to suddenly deem formerly occupied territory “Palestinian Territory.” Here’s a clip explaining this

      youtube.com/watch?v=p-ayacNgHgQ

  3. Laura, if you parted from xty long ago, why would you go to a midnight mass? And if you cast doubt on Jesus’ very existence, why would you go to his purported place of birth??? We DON’T have “stories” connected to Rosh HaShana, Hanuka, Purim, et al, we have HISTORY. But the way you describe your beliefs, it sounds no different than a “reformed” head hunter in the Congo who misses his childhood smells of cooking flesh (well, that’s pretty extreme, isn’t it, but I just want to try & understand your irrational attachment to a belief system you’ve abandoned). The Jewish historian Josephus said that about 15% of the Roman Empire had converted to Judaism. I can’t help, but wonder if you might be part of that remnant & that’s what has REALLY attracted you to living in Israel amongst Jews. I must say that when I was in Rome I felt a VERY, VERY deep attraction & connection to Italians that I couldn’t understand. If was like being in a relaxed Tel Aviv & I’m NOT the only one who has experienced that. If you got your DNA checked & found that you had “Jewish” DNA, how would that affect you???

  4. Yes, maybe I do have some Jewish DNA… That would not surprise nor bother me at all. Quite the contrary. Someone said that if it wasn’t for Jesus, we Italian would all be Jewish, no? 😉

    What bothers me is to see how Christianity derived from Judaism, distorted it, to the point that a commandment like “Sanctify Shabbat” became “Sanctify Sunday”! And people believe what they are told, so they don’t investigate how that happened or why. Maybe historians do, because they are out of the dogma, but then they are called “infidels” by religious leaders. And so on.

    I feel free to go and visit the place of birth of Jesus because it is interesting and even touching, anthropologically and spiritually. But I am out of any dogmatic belief.

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