BETHLEHEM CHRISTMAS : This Year Will Be Different

By Poulin, Joan | Commonweal, December 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

BETHLEHEM CHRISTMAS : This Year Will Be Different


Poulin, Joan, Commonweal


Bethlehem is only a twenty-minute drive south from Jerusalem, or a three-hour walk. The population is Palestinian: Christian and Muslim. Fifty years ago, Christians predominated, but now Muslims are the majority in Bethlehem. Here, during the last two months, violent clashes between soldiers and Palestinians have erupted almost daily, but have been localized mainly at Rachel's Tomb, in the northern part of the town. Seven Palestinians from the Bethlehem area have died, a far cry from our image of the Bethlehem of Christmas carols and crib scenes.

I know few Christians will come to the Holy Land for Christmas this year. At least 80 percent of scheduled groups canceled their pilgrimages at the beginning of October, and late last month the Palestinian Authority called off official celebrations in Manger Square. Coupled with the fact that the territories which belong to the Palestinian Authority had previously been cut off from Israel for security reasons, this will continue to diminish the Palestinians' resources.

But despite what now seems like low-level war between Israelis and Palestinians, life goes forward. I have lived in Jerusalem for thirty years and work as an Israeli-licensed tour guide. I know, better than most, that the Bethlehem of Christmas carols and brotherly love is a beautiful dream, that the reality is something very different. Still, one can catch a glimpse of that dream even in the midst of violence.

As a tour guide, I have found that arrangements for handling visitors have changed for the better since the Palestinian Authority took over Bethlehem in 1995. Previously, Manger Square, the space in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, was a parking lot filled with buses, noisy and polluting. On the south side of the square was the police station surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. Now the square has been cleared and the police station turned into a visitors' center. A huge underground parking lot down the hill from the square can accommodate all the buses that arrive. An escalator carries pilgrims partway up the steep slope. There is still quite a climb to the square, but the view of the basilica, the oldest in the Holy Land, is now unobstructed.

The Basilica of the Nativity has hardly changed since it was built by Justinian in the sixth century. It is situated over the cave where tradition places the birth of Jesus. Crusaders, in the twelfth century, added wonderful mosaics representing the ecumenical and local councils of the church and personages from the genealogies of Jesus according to Matthew and Luke. Wonderfully expressive angels adorn the high walls on both sides of the central nave, and on both sides of the sanctuary. Paintings on each column bordering the central nave depict saints who were venerated in medieval times. Today's pilgrims frown quizzically when I mention Saints Cataldus of Ireland, Onophrio with his long beard, his only covering, or Fusca.

Up until the recent troubles, there was little opportunity this great Jubilee year to admire any of this, much less the floor mosaics from the fourth century. The crowds were just too great. The mosaics were commissioned by Constantine when his mother, Helena, made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and build the first church on the site. Justinian covered them with dirt and stones when he raised his church floor a couple of feet above the original floor, and they were only rediscovered in 1934 during the British Mandate. Now they are cleaned but can be seen only through wooden trap doors. For most of this year there were too many pilgrims to allow much of a view.

In the past year, once you had climbed to the square, you were confronted with a long line of people waiting to enter the basilica. Sometimes it took several hours to arrive at the church door, and you had to stand in line in the hot sun, patiently waiting to go down into the Grotto of the Nativity. The Palestinian Tourist Police were generally patient and polite. …

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