BETHLEHEM — Despite the ever-present threat of violence simmering just below the surface in a land brimming with cultural and religious significance, the mood was nevertheless upbeat in the town of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Vendors at the annual Christmas Market in Manger Square, held across the street from the Church of the Nativity, faced a steady stream of shoppers, mostly Christians, who spent a long time mingling with family and friends in the winter sun. Nearly two dozen booths sold a wide assortment of gifts, from hand-embroidered purses to Christmas decorations.
Many of the shoppers took selfies or family photos in front of the huge Christmas tree that municipal workers were stringing with thousands of twinkling lights. Others helped their children with arts-and-crafts projects at a long table in the lobby of the nearby Palestinian Peace Center.
Despite the good cheer, Palestinian Christians, who comprise less than 2% of the Holy Land’s residents, told the Register that, as in previous years, Christmas in the Holy Land will be bittersweet.
Several said the latest wave of violence sweeping the Holy Land, as well as the Palestinian Authority’s decision — reportedly at the urging of Christians in Ramallah — to keep public Christmas celebrations low-key this year, out of solidarity with the Palestinians who have lost their lives in the conflict, is disheartening.
Since mid-September, more than 20 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian terror attacks, and dozens of Palestinians have been killed, the vast majority of them during clashes with Israeli forces or while carrying out attacks, according to the Israeli government.
While the violence has put a damper on their community’s holiday spirit, many local Christians said toning down Christmas festivities isn’t the answer.
“Our situation is difficult, but it has been like this for more than 60 years,” said Christina Canavati, 22, referring to the establishment of the state of Israel 67 years ago. “It’s sad, but we need to live our lives as best we can, and that means celebrating Christmas the way we celebrate it every year.”
Hana Amireh, head of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches Affairs in Palestine, a Palestinian government agency, said the Palestinian Authority has urged the mayors of towns that celebrate Christmas to commit to a “certain decrease” in festivities.
This year, for example, the municipality of Bethlehem was asked to not set off holiday fireworks and to limit the decorations that traditionally adorn the town’s main thoroughfares.
Although Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah will light the Manger Square Christmas tree, Amireh said, unlike previous years, he will not join the festive dinner hosted by the Bethlehem municipality.
“But religious events will still take place, as will the Christian procession,” a lively parade through the streets of Bethlehem, he said.
Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, emphasized that the call to tone down public Christmas festivities “came from Christians themselves, such as the Christian mayor [Musa Hadid] of Ramallah,” the Palestinians’ de facto capital in the West Bank.
“His fear was that the celebrations, without reduction, would give a false message that the situation is normal.”
Bishop Shomali noted that the Palestinian Authority and Bethlehem municipality did not plan to cancel the big Christmas festivals due to the situation.
“On the contrary, the prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, is coming to Bethlehem to light the Christmas tree on Dec. 5. The tree will be lit in [nearby] Beit Sahour and Beit Jala as well. The Palestinian government is not only encouraging, but helping financially to implement, these festivals,” Bishop Shomali said in late November.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was not involved directly in the decision, the bishop said, “although our priests in the different parishes had their say. They agree to continue celebrating, but with moderation, in order not to give the impression that everything is okay.”
Bishop Shomali recalled that, during the first and second Palestinian uprisings, Christians celebrated Christmas, but in a more modest way.
Many Christians, meanwhile, rejected the notion that Christmas celebrations should be scaled back at all, especially in Bethlehem, due to the current threat of violence.
“Although we don’t feel as hopeful as in previous years, we’re trying to remain positive and upbeat for our children,” said Dalia, a young mother who asked that her last name not be published. “We want them to feel the Christmas spirit, especially in the birthplace of Jesus Christ.”
But the violence is having an impact on tourist numbers.
Tony Hosh, a Bethlehem-based tour operator, whose family has lived in Bethlehem for many generations, said many pilgrims have canceled their reservations.
“They’re afraid to come, but compared to the second intifada [uprising], business is okay,” he said.
Concerns About Jerusalem
Canavati said that although she and her friends and family feel reasonably safe in Bethlehem, they haven’t ventured to Jerusalem, despite the travel documents the Israeli government provides Palestinian Christians during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
“We’re afraid to go to Jerusalem; we’re afraid of terror,” she said, and she nodded when asked if she was afraid a Palestinian might mistake her for a Jew and stab her, and vice versa
“In the end, we’re all human beings,” Canavati said. “Killing is killing, and killing is wrong.”
Hosh said that it would be “very sad if, as we’ve been hearing, the municipality will not allow some of the traditional festivities to take place. Celebrating doesn’t take away from the uprising. It means we’re celebrating Jesus. With or without celebrations, we’re sad for the people being killed on both sides. We’re looking for peace.”
writes from Jerusalem.