Thursday, January 8

Christmas Canceled in Bethlehem

The biggest holiday of the year in Bethlehem is obviously Christmas. In the Holy Land, the town of Jesus’s birth, this is the height of the tourist season as well as a time of great joy for local Christians. Because every denomination and sect of Christianity reveres the Incarnation, there are three periods of celebrations every winter in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity: for the western churches, December 24th and 25th, for the eastern churches January 6th and 7th, and for the Armenian Orthodox, January 18th and 19th. This year, however, after the western Christians (Catholics and Protestants) had their festivities, Israel began its bombing campaign of Gaza, December 27th. In a show of support for the Palestinians in Gaza, the Bethlehem municipality (and all of the West Bank) canceled most parties and celebrations, including those for the New Year and for the remaining two Christmases.

Lights were turned off, decorations taken down, and the mood around Manger Square has been quiet and somber. This January 6th, Christmas eve for Eastern Orthodox churches, there was no fanfare and pomp in the streets. Usually, as on December 24th for western Christians, there is a huge parade with boy and girl scout troops and bands playing triumphant music; and choirs from around the world sing carols in front of the church. This year, the city merely welcomed the Patriarchs of the various Christian communities such as Syrian, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Churches into the Nativity Church. Services were held as normal but the season’s typical public cheer was absent.

I had personally looked forward to enjoying the holidays here in Palestine, in the place where it all began. I saw the fanfare of the Catholic Christmas and was excited to see what the Orthodox holiday had in store. But canceling the celebration seemed one small way in which residents of Bethlehem could stand in solidarity with the population of Gaza, at a time when we all feel so helpless in the face of such violence. The continued war will dampen more than just spirits here. Tourists have already fled what they feel is an insecure situation and take with them much of the business that keeps Bethlehem running. Quietly though, we Christians still take hope in this Christmas time, having faith that Christ is still present, amidst the pain and suffering, and that ultimately peace will reign on earth.

--Kimberly MacVaugh is an MCC SALT worker, serving her one year term in Israel/Palestine. She is a recent graduate of Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and she hopes her experiences here will lead to long-term work for peace and justice in the Middle East.

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