Christmas in Palestine

I spent Christmas in Bethlehem, Christ's birthplace, first in the international tourist hotspot of Manger Square, then in the hills surrounding it where there's fewer Nativity scenes and more posters honoring Palestinian martyrs and Fatah graffiti.

I spent Christmas morning sleeping next to the roof of Bethlehem’s prison.

Bethlehem, the Palestinian city of 25,000 where Jesus Christ was born two millennia ago, has an ancient history of lacking hotel vacancies, but I managed to find a spot for my sleeping bag at a youth hostel—which not only doubles as a French preschool but also shares a building with the aforementioned high-walled, barb-wired, watchtower-guarded lockup. But to its credit the hostel was only a five-minute walk from the historical birthplace of Christianity’s messiah, which is of course the reason thousands of people show up at this tourist hub every year.

Manger Square, Bethlehem’s nexus, was decked out with wreaths, reindeer, and Santas in true international capitalist Christmas fashion to welcome what the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism estimates is 150,000 eager pilgrims this holiday season. Around the square were a profusion of shops selling olive wood rosaries and Nativity sets and at the center of the chaos sat the Church of the Nativity, the fourth-century Byzantine structure built on the site of the manger where Jesus was supposedly born. Outside of the church stood a giant Christmas tree, a life-size Nativity scene, and a stage for musical performances. The whole seasonal tableau faced the Mosque of Omar, just a stone’s throw away; Manger Square is a solidly Christian area but Bethlehem as a whole, like the rest of Palestine, is dominated by Muslims. Regardless, on Christmas Eve the square was packed to the brim and live music echoed throughout the neighborhood. At least one shop was playing that repetitive Alvin and the Chipmunks cover of “Frosty the Snowman.” On stage bands and singers from all over the world sang global Christmas standards like “O Holy Night” but also dove into the songbooks of their homelands. Right before midnight mass, a Polish group took the stage and belted out tunes only their countrymen could sing along to while most of the crowd just mumbled. Meanwhile, because of security concerns armed guards controlled foot and vehicle traffic, a reminder that we didn't have peace on earth and good will towards men just yet.

Though it seems most foreign Christmas attendees in Bethlehem are Christians, I spoke to some American Jews visiting from Israel and many Palestinian Muslims also attend the festivities, especially young men, who are drawn in by the concerts and the availability of relatively cheap alcohol—a rarity in Muslim areas of Palestine. On Christmas Eve, it looked like most revelers were Palestinian. According to the Palestinian Authority, in 2012 tourism in Bethlehem could inject as much as $300 million into the economy.

The main event is the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but tickets are required and those are difficult to get. A pair of Kiwis staying at my hostel had them, but they’d applied months in advance. Touring the Church of the Nativity on the 24th, I saw a sign that said all available spots had been filled and I resigned myself to not attending, but I networked a little and managed to weasel in.

What happened was I found myself in a group with the Kiwis and a Romanian named Andrei chatting with Jack, the Palestinian hostel manager, about the ramifications of Israeli policies and settlements in the West Bank and the difficulties they create for businesses and nonprofits (his hostel’s profits go to benefit a children’s charity). His main complaint was that because the Israelis control transportation in the West Bank it is difficult to move supplies and personnel from point A to point B. He also said that the Israelis keep profiles on nonprofit workers and at times make arbitrary decisions about who is allowed in and out of Palestine. He was hopeful that the UN’s November recognition of Palestine might change things by placing pressure on the Israelis to ease travel restrictions, but he didn’t think anything would happen overnight or that the Israelis would end their West Bank settlement expansions anytime soon. When the conversation ended, it came up that the Kiwis were getting into the midnight mass and that Andrei and I would like to. Jack said he knew a guy who knew a guy and could probably smuggle us in—he told us to meet him back at reception, where he greeted us with tickets in hand.

Jack led us through the crowds in Manger Square and into the side door of the hotel abutting the church, where we hustled through the lobby into an elevator and stepped out to find ourselves in the church courtyard. I got swept along with a crowd of pilgrims into the 19th-century Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic wing of the complex where the Franciscan midnight mass is held. St. Catherine’s is a little dull compared to the ancient Byzantine trappings of the Greek Orthodox-managed Basilica of the Nativity next door, and it’s also relatively small. When I got there, about 2,000 worshippers were squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder around a central space of pews and seats reserved for VIPs. Starting just after 10 PM, the service took nearly four hours because in addition to Latin and Arabic, readings and hymns are recited and sung in at least seven other languages (I lost count). Most of the attendees weren’t locals and it showed—an attempt to get the audience to participate in an Arabic call-and-answer portion failed.

About a third of the way through, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his entourage arrived, as did political delegations from Qatar and Jordan. Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who led the ceremony, formally recognized them and thanked them for attending but most, including Abbas, left shortly before communion. As the wafers and wine were distributed, worshippers rushed the center aisle to receive them—things actually got a little unruly. I found myself getting pushed and shoved against a sea of nuns and trigger-happy Instagram tourists who not only needed their dose of transubstantiation but also wanted to record it for social media. The mass wrapped up around 2AM, and Twal led a procession into the grotto that marked the exact spot where Christ was born. I separated from the crowd and stumbled into the nearly deserted Manger Square.

I made my way back to the hostel and passed out, but I was woken at 8 AM by the prison’s PA system, so I laced my boots and headed out to see what the rest of Bethlehem had to offer. Most of the city is radically different from the squeaky-clean Santas and gift shops of Manger Square. There’s a main street with banks and business that you might find in any modern town, but stray too far from that and you’ll find yourself among rubble, garbage, and rebar jutting out of incomplete buildings. I came to a traffic circle with a sign celebrating a martyred fighter named Aatif Aabiat and decided to venture up the road behind it.

As I walked up the hill I came across more depictions of martyrs—mostly posters this time. Not surprisingly, there was also a lot of militant graffiti and Fatah flags. It was still early in the morning and the streets were largely empty except for a few children kicking soccer balls. Then I came upon a group of 20-somethings who were initially suspicious about what I was doing there—a Westerner wandering their town too early on Christmas morning—but soon lightened up and asked if I’d have tea with them.

Mohamed Khatemesh, 24, Mahmoud Jundia, 28, and Said Owad, 23, are cousins and live in an area they call Jabal Hundaza. It’s a hill surrounded with terraced olive groves, tiny family farms, the aforementioned graffiti and posters, and a couple mosques. Their family is Muslim, but they said that in Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims have always lived together and the differences between the faiths have never been a source of conflict. Mahmoud admitted he was in a recent argument with his Christian neighbors, but they resolved it and the tension wasn’t because of any religious issue. Mohamed said some of his best friends are Christian and the two groups marry and have mixed families. As far as he’s concerned, Christian pilgrims aren’t just welcome, but beneficial to Bethlehem.

The cousins believed—probably not incorrectly—that most foreigners are unaware that Bethlehem isn’t an Israeli town. In their eyes, the sleepy little settlement has the Biblical name recognition to not only bring in tourism money but also show the world a different side of Palestine, one not dominated by images of terrorism and war. “We feel good about the (tourists), we think it’s good for Palestinians, and it’s good for the economy. It lets the people know about the situation here. They see the occupation, they see how it affects the Palestinians,” Mohamed said over tea and biscuits. “They come from all over the world and they see the Church of the Nativity and they see Muslims and Christians side by side—we’re the same.”

But before the interfaith appreciation fest continued, they all made it clear they absolutely hate the Israelis and they consider all of what’s now Israel rightfully Palestinian. They do not believe an Israeli state can coexist with a Palestinian one and they said the Jews must one day be expelled. They were also critical of America’s support of Israel, but made a distinction between Americans and the American government. As an American, they said I was welcome in Palestine.

I hung around the cousins for a few hours as they showed off their livestock and threw rocks at targets in an olive field. Mahmoud insisted he’s the best rock thrower and hunts birds with a sling. For me, the image brought to mind scenes of King David—another Bethlehemite—killing Goliath with the same weapon. While taking aim they related stories of Israeli arrests and roadblocks and said Israeli authorities imprisoned Said’s brother for 14 years. The cousins didn’t say why.

I said my goodbyes and made my way out of Jabal Hundaza. On the return to Manger Square something smacked me in the head. After I saw a tuft of dust from another impact bloom in front of me it became apparent someone was pelting me with glass marbles. I looked up to see four tiny heads peeking from a rooftop. It was just a bunch of kids, a prank—they waved and laughed at me. I waved back and wished them a Merry Christmas.

Mat Wolf is an Amman, Jordan-based freelance journalist who focuses on themes of culture, conflict, religion, and politics. He hails from the American Pacific Northwest.