Bethlehem celebrates Christmas


‘Life is hard here, Christmas is a wonderful time of year, we look forward to it, but it doesn’t obscure the difficulties.” Stephanie, the daughter of the owners of the cheerful Nirvana café in central Bethlehem, is walking home from the Christmas eve parade. A member of a Salesian Catholic youth scout troop, she is dressed in a yellow outfit like thousands of other youth from across Bethlehem, Beit Jalla, Beit Sahour and Jerusalem who joined the annual Christmas eve parade. A 21 year old student of sociology, her troop was preparing for months for this occasion, a highlight of the year for local Christians, who remain a struggling minority of around 50,000 in the West Bank.

Christmas festivities in Bethlehem

Christmas festivities in Bethlehem (Seth J. Frantzman)

Walking into the Bethlehem town center billboards proclaimed the Christmas season but many Muslim residents, who make up a majority of the city, went about business shopping as usual. Some stores were closed, especially those owned by Christians and decorated for the holiday. Around Manger Square hundreds of Palestinian police and security officials had cordoned off a route for the Patriarch’s procession and the scout troops. Kids in Santa hats milled around while women, some with Muslim headscarves, looked on. There was a noticeable absence of throngs of foreigners or pilgrims from abroad. “Each Christmas is better than the last,” said Yusuf, whose family had come from nearby to watch.

Scouts marching

Scouts marching (Seth J. Frantzman)

But as the scout troops began their march there was a lot of tussling to get a good view near the entrance to the church. “I think half the Palestinian people are journalists suddenly today,” joked an onlooker as young men and women pleaded with the Palestinian police to get past the barricades and get a front row spot. A Franciscan monk from Italy, with the traditional brown robes, complained that he was late for the choir. A tall woman from Scotland shouted that she was being jostled and that it was a “chaos and pandemonium.”

The procession from the Church to meet the Latin Patriarch (Seth J. Frantzman)

The procession from the Church to meet the Latin Patriarch (Seth J. Frantzman)

After the first few hundred scouts had made their way past a Portuguese parish priest from the Azores explained that he has come dozens of times to the holy land, but this was his first Christmas here. Father Jacinto Alberto de Meneses Bento took the crowds in stride; “this is the center of the world; people think it is always conflict, but if you look with clear eyes you can see the good.”

The Christmas parade is one of the largest events the Palestinian Authority organizes every year and it was clear from the half dozen layers of security they had present; including men from the “special security” with AK-47s, and legions of police, most of them in good humor and chatting with the crowds.   The Muslim call to prayer, seemingly louder than usual, blasted over the crowd at 2pm as the Patriarch arrived. After the Patriarch had made his way into the Church of the Nativity a brawl broke out among scout troops. Chairs and drums were thrown and drummers hit at eachother with drumsticks. The Palestinian police waded into the fight with batons and the crowd sighed. “What a shame,” said one man. But another disagreed, “it’s a Christmas tradition; every year they fight, for nothing, about nothing.”

Scout troops after the festivities (Seth J. Frantzman)

Scout troops after the festivities (Seth J. Frantzman)

Several people were wounded in the melee and ambulances evacuated them. As the crowds mingled off to await the midnight mass, a giant poster proclaiming “all I want for Christmas is justice,” reminded onlookers that the ever-present conflict with Israel is on people’s minds during the holiest night of the year for this community.

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