Six months ago, as I sat waiting for my flight to Portugal to begin my trek across the world, I remember wondering where I would spend Christmas this year. It's a seemingly random thought considering the holiday was months away, but the last time I went traveling (during my exchange in Milan) I ended up missing Christmas with my family for the first time in my life. Thanks to an ill-fated snowstorm, instead of celebrating the holiday with family, I enjoyed some quality alone time in a Frankfurt airport hotel scavenging food from the vending machines. Not quite what you would call "Christmasy," but that's life. This time around, however, I'm voluntarily skipping out on the holidays, but was I destined to spend Christmas 2014 in a lonely airport hotel or in some other exotic location? Of all the possible outcomes I imagined, I never thought I’d be celebrating Christmas this year in the very town of Bethlehem!
From Jerusalem, Bethlehem is a short 30-minute bus ride away. Unless you are especially religious, there isn’t much to do in city aside from the main attractions like the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, and Manger Square. For most people, Bethlehem is nothing more than quick day trip excursion; I saw everything I wanted to in the span of a few hours. Oddly enough, I was most excited to see the Christmas lights around Manger Square. There are many things I love about Israel, but thanks to of the dominance of Judaism and Islam, December 25th this year hasn't really felt like Christmas – in fact, on several occasions I even completely forgot what time of the year it was.
Of course, it doesn’t help when the temperature is a balmy 22°C (~72°F) with full sun and a dry, desert breeze in the air.
The one thing that will forever stand out in my mind about my visit to Bethlehem is the cultural atmosphere. I'm not a religious man, but I remember hearing stories about the birth of Jesus and I pictured Bethlehem as a nice little Christian town. What that was supposed to look like exactly I didn't have a clue, but the moment I stepped foot off the bus in Bethlehem my perspective changed drastically. As obvious as it may sound, it wasn’t until I began walking around the city that it finally dawned on me: Bethlehem is a predominantly Arab community in the West Bank.
While there are a number of churches scattered around, there was an overwhelming Muslim influence throughout the city that I (for some ridiculous reason) was not expecting. Admitting this feeling is a bit embarrassing, but at that moment I realized how my previously held (and rather narrow-minded) assumptions of a city that I've never visited before impacted how I viewed it. In my mind, I had already created an idea of what Bethlehem “should” have looked like even though it was completely wrong.
My trek up to Manger Square along Children’s Street was a wonderfully chaotic experience that is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. The streets were lined with vendors selling everything from the necessities like fruits, meats, and vegetables all the way to televisions, lottery tickets, and even hot water heaters. It took all my effort to avoid running into pedestrians, knocking over children racing along on their scooters, or tripping over vendors peddling their goods on rickety old carts. Children's Street is a mess of a road littered with a variety of trampled foodstuffs knocked off from vendors’ displays and merchants yelling the day’s specials to prospective customers. I couldn’t stop smiling as I navigated through the crowded streets – I was very, very far away from home.
The most important sight in all of Bethlehem for pilgrims is the Church of Nativity that is built on the same land as the manger where Jesus Christ was born. I was expecting to see a torrent of pilgrims lined up for blocks just waiting to get inside, but the crowds were surprisingly manageable and I was in the church in a matter of minutes. During my visit the interior wasn’t particularly fascinating as the walls, floors, and ceilings were covered in scaffolding. It always seems old structures like this are perpetually under repair, but apparently the Church of the Nativity was in desperate need of attention. Since the church is located on Palestinian territory, any attempt to renovate, restore, or otherwise alter the structure is met with significant political issues. The renovations currently underway were planned over a decade ago, but are just now finally being carried out thanks to the tense political and religious environment.
In the back of the church under the main altar is a small underground grotto with an alter marking the location where Jesus was born. While it was easy for me to get into the church, the line to visit the grotto was astronomical; there were easily over a hundred people crammed together waiting patiently for their turn. On the right hand side of the altar there is a modest semicircular staircase funneling people through a narrow marble doorway into the chamber below. As I descended the claustrophobic pathway among the torrent of pilgrims there was a thick, almost palpable, scent of incense burning in the metal thuribles hanging from the low ceiling. The hall was draped in red curtains and immediately to my right is a small altar with a large fourteen-pointed star embedded in the marble floor surrounded by a half-dozen thuribles. This is the spot believed by many to be the exact location where Jesus Christ was born.
I think I can say I “won” Christmas this year. You can’t get much more Christmasy than standing right next to the spot where the man of the hour was born.
The minuscule underground chamber can only accommodate a handful of people at a time and is lined with various works of art depicting the story of Jesus. The priests in charge of managing the torrent of pilgrims, while kind and understanding, were quickly pushing people through the chamber - everyone was given 10 to 15 seconds to pray or take pictures before the priests shooed us away like stray cats. It was all very organized, but you could tell the priests were attempting to mask their frustration with a smile as they nudged aside those who took too many pictures…
Like yours truly.
From the Church of the Nativity, I wandered through Manger Square to explore the rest of the city. A giant Christmas tree was erected in the middle of the square next to a small stage prominently displaying a banner reading, “All I Want for Christmas is Justice.” How cheery. Apparently it looks like any opportunity is a great chance to bring up polarizing political issues. While Manger Square was a chaotic mess of people, the rest of Bethlehem is remarkably quiet with locals going about their day as if it was just a regular old Thursday afternoon. I’ve spent every year of my life looking forward to Christmas Day and, as absurd as it sounds, I’m still mesmerized that there are people in this world who do not celebrate it. I knew holidays like Thanksgiving, Halloween, and the Fourth of July are U.S. celebrations that most of the world doesn’t care about, but in my mind for some reason I mistakenly believed Christmas was a universal holiday.
It wasn’t until my trip to Bethlehem that I realized just how ingrained traditions like Christmas are in my mind.
I’m tremendously grateful to have visited Bethlehem on Christmas Day this year, but I know for a fact that I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as many of my family members back home would have. Since my family comes from a Catholic background, I know many of them would love to visit the famous city of Bethlehem if they only had the chance. Considering my own stance on religion, I find it horribly ironic that of all the people in my family, I’m the first person to visit Bethlehem – life isn’t fair. I’ve always been terrible at buying Christmas presents, but at least this year I could give my parents and grandparents a genuinely unique gift: rosaries purchased from the town of Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
To my brother Eric, I’ll find something else for you. I doubt you want a rosary.
To everyone back home, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!