(December 1, 2015 / JNS)
By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
Scouts playing bagpipes, horns, and drums entertain the visitors. Merchants peddle Santa hats and Christmas flare. The children eat sticky sesame sweets for the holiday. With more than 25,000 people celebrating, Christmas in Bethlehem is different than anywhere else in the world.
A towering Christmas tree. Lights everywhere. Christmas music and plays.
In the Holy Land, Christmas is not just one day—there are multiple services and processions led by many different Christian denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Armenian, and more. And unique to Bethlehem, all of the celebrations—Roman Catholic and Protestant on Dec. 25; Greek, Syrian, and other Orthodox Christians on Jan. 6; and Armenian Christians on Jan. 18—center on one place: the Church of the Nativity.
The Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto that Christians believe is the site where Jesus was born.
The writings of Justin Martyr (100-165 c.) describe that “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him” (Chapter LXXVIII).
The cave was under the control of the Christians until in 135, Hadrian took it over and had it converted into a worship place for the pagan god Adonis, Greek god of beauty and desire.
“It was sad that Hadrian did this, but it marked the place. So Christians, when they could take it back, they knew this was the place. Before Hadrian and after him, Christians were the ones taking care of it,” explains Khadra Zreineh, a Christian tour guide from Bethlehem. Zreineh specializes in tours of Christian holy sites.
The church, originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine and his mother Helena, was built around the grotto. The Church of Nativity’s original basilica was completed in 339, destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the 6th century, and rebuilt in 565 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The church is currently undergoing major renovations for the first time in 100 years.
“Christians still believe that when someone makes a wish here, it comes true,” says Zreineh. “This is the only place in the world where it is authentic.”
The church is regal inside and outside, with each major sect having its own area for mass and other ceremonies. Low doorways force one to bow down as he/she enters the church and then again as he/she enters the grotto. You cannot get into the actual cave where Jesus was born, just look inside from the grotto.
Above the opening to the cave of Jesus’s birth sits a 14-point star. The 14 points symbolize Jesus’s genealogy—14 generations between King David and Jesus. Just above the star is the Latin inscription, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born—1717.”
Down a couple of stairs and across from the star is the manger, the cradle, in which it is believed Mary placed Jesus directly after he was born.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in November, the grotto is filled with tourists—as it usually is. They break into a series of Christmas hymns.
Zreineh chuckles, “Even in June we sing Christmas songs—because here it is always Christmas.”
She continues, “On Christmas, it is so full here, you cannot walk.…There is a big tribute concert, with musicians from all over the world. Last year, we had Christmas carols to rock and roll.”
On Christmas eve, the mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, comes to the light the tree. Many other Muslim officials of the Palestinian Authority join in, too, out of respect for their Christian neighbors.
“We have learned to live in peace together—it is possibly the only place in the world where a people live in peace with Muslims, this small and old city,” says Zreineh.
She explains that before the 1967 Six-Day War, the Bethlehem population was around 85-percent Christian. Today, the city is only 19-percent Christian. The rest are Muslims. Many local Christians have moved away from the Middle East to Europe in order to pursue a better education and lifestyle. According to the World Bank, poverty affects nearly one in four Palestinians, including in Bethlehem. (Israel as a whole, however, is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is currently growing.)
The largest contingency of Christians in Bethlehem are Catholic, followed by Greek Orthodox and then Armenian Christians. Mass is held daily in community churches and at the Church of the Nativity. On Sundays, tours cannot start until after 11:30 a.m.
“Every Sunday, there is a mass in the church every 10 minutes,” says Zreineh.
Muslims do come to pray at the Church of Nativity, too, as it holds some significance for adherents to the Islamic faith. The Quran references the birth of Jesus (Isa) as a “pure boy” to Mary (Maryam), a miraculous event that occurred by decreed of God (Allah). But Zreineh says Muslims come for individual prayer and never as a group.
Zreineh explains that Caliph Omar (Umar) ibn al-Khattab (581–644 c.) would not let Muslims congregate here, but would only allow them to come one by one lest they determine the Church of the Nativity to be a Muslim holy site and try to take it over.
The Caliph said, “I will not call my friends, because if I do, then in the next century they will say, ‘Every day, every time,’” according to Zreineh.
The Mosque of Omar, the oldest and only mosque in the old city of Bethlehem, is located in Manger Square, almost directly in front of the Church of the Nativity.
Christmas celebrations bring a boost of cheer to everyone in Bethlehem.
“If God measures someone it is not based on his head, but his heart,” says Zreineh. “You don’t have to be a believer to do confession here.”