The only reason I look forward to Christmas every year is my now traditional Christmas trip, which doesn’t really have much to do with Santa but rather with the fact that I get time off work and can go on an adventure. And while religion didn’t play any role when I decided to spend my Christmas break in Israel and Palestine, I still wanted to spend Christmas in Bethlehem. Who knows, maybe I could even have some kind of revelation? (Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen.)
On December 24, I left my rental apartment and walked to East Jerusalem through the Old City, entering through the Jaffa Gate between the Christian and Armenian quarters and exiting through the Damascus Gate in the Muslim quarter. The Damascus Gate is the entrance to East Jerusalem, where the city’s Palestinian population is concentrated, and from where I would be taking a bus to Bethlehem.
I took a small Palestinian bus going directly to Bethlehem and paid seven shekels for the ride. The bus ride took me along newly-built Israeli neighborhoods and the massive separation wall between Israel and the West Bank. The ride from Damascus Gate was only about 11 kilometers and must have taken about 45 minutes. I obviously wasn’t the only one who had had the brilliant idea of spending Christmas in Bethlehem and the bus was packed, but most people would go back to Jerusalem that same evening.
The bus stopped on Bethlehem’s main street, Hebron Road, which leads to Hebron like the name suggests. I decided to walk from there to my rental apartment, as taxi drivers there are known to prey on tourists and charge them ridiculous amounts.
While walking on Hebron Road I felt like I was in a small Mexican roadside town. The street was lined with garages turned into stores and repair shops. Most of the buildings seemed unfinished, and there was a constant cacophonous concert of car horns coming from every crossing. The streets were dirty, and I felt so far away from Jerusalem even though I was less than ten kilometers away. After all, I had crossed the border and was no longer in Israel but in Palestine.
I then arrived at my rental apartment on a street with no name. The house had no number and it was the only property in an otherwise empty area. My hosts, a family of Palestinian Christians headed by a man named Maurice (he used the Western version of his name), came out to greet me. I intended to head into the city immediately after dropping off my stuff, but was intercepted by Maurice on the way out. I thought he just wanted to wish me a merry Christmas, but we ended up casually chatting by the stairs for well over 30 minutes. The conversation quickly moved in a different direction. “We Palestinian Christians are the true indigenous people of this land,” Maurice told me. “All across Galilee, bells used to toll every time they found the remains of an old church.”
While that is an exaggeration (as the presence of other ethnic groups in the area going back way before them is well documented), I interpreted his assertion within the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and his own situation as a member of the rapidly-shrinking Palestinian Christian minority. He then told me he can trace back his ancestry at least nine generations, but that all his siblings as well as his son had already immigrated, the former to Latin America and the latter to Romania. I heard a hint of melancholic resignation in his voice when he said that, as he knew he was the last one of his family holding the line.
The Palestinian Christian minority made up almost 85 percent of Bethlehem’s population up until the mid-20th century. Today, Palestinian Christians make up only about 10 percent of the city’s population. The adjacent town of Beit Jala is mostly Christian, and there are several villages around that are nominally Christian, but their presence in Palestine is not so much shrinking but rather disappearing, as they are prone to emigrate.
Maurice then excused himself and I headed to the city center. Considering that spending Christmas in Bethlehem would probably be a once-in-a-lifetime thing I wore my finest shirt, a hand-embroidered Ukrainian vyshyvanka.
It was a relatively warm day. Sunny, even. The road from my apartment right by the Dheishe refugee camp led me through the hills of Bethlehem. The narrow streets were heavily transited, and there were road blocks manned by Palestinian cops, who wore ill-fitting clothes and were only partially armed—as opposed to their semi-militarized Israeli counterparts. There were cars parked on the sidewalks along the roads so I had to walk on the pavement at times. The winding streets were not wide enough for two cars so vehicles in both directions often had to yield to each other, but more often than not seemed to be playing a ridiculous game of chicken as they sped through.
I took extra care not to get distracted by anything, though I did have to stop and take a picture of a building with a cross and an inscription in Arabic.
Though Christians are now a very small minority in Bethlehem, there are lots of buildings bearing crosses or even the image of St. George killing the dragon. It seemed that all Palestinian Christians wear crosses, too. “There are no problems between Christians and Muslims here. We respect each other’s religion,” told me Maurice during our conversation. “We also have no problems with Jews. I have many Jewish friends. The problem is with Zionists: To them I’m not a Christian—I’m an Arab.”
I finally arrived in Bethlehem’s city center and the first church I came across was the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary. Going in was a bit of a trip because seemingly the entire congregation was in the yard, and they were all wearing brown uniforms with Scottish tartans. Some were even carrying bagpipes but unfortunately I didn’t get to hear them being played. Most stood around and smoked.
Nevermind the tourists; Christmas in Bethlehem is a big deal for the local population. Bethlehem’s city center was packed. I knew it was going to be full but I wasn’t expecting that many people and was a bit overwhelmed. I walked across the square past the choirs and the Christmas tree, and headed to see the Church of the Nativity. That short glimpse inside the church was about as much as I could take for the day and decided that Christmas was over and it was time to eat something.
Unfortunately, prices during Christmas in Bethlehem didn’t differ much from those in Jerusalem, so I opted for the cheapest option because I’m stingy and got a falafel. Funnily enough, the people sitting next to me were also from Guadalajara. Afterward I walked down a side street where I saw a sign advertising local beer. I went in, got a beer and drank it outside the store together with the shopkeeper, a Palestinian Christian named George. And yes, I know it’s a bit odd to mention the religion of the characters in this story but it was just interesting that Christians were so overrepresented in my experience considering their low numbers.
After dark, most families and tourists started vacating the square, and were replaced by young Palestinian men. I sat down on some stairs in front of the square and started talking to the guy sitting next to me, who also was a solo tourist. My new friend was Oskar, a Polish traveler who had walked from Poland to Greece and then taken a flight to Israel to spend Christmas in Bethlehem. He was a bit disappointed with the experience, as he hadn’t managed to get a ticket for midnight mass and would have to follow it on the screen outside the church.
Oskar and I decided to walk to the edge of town to see the separation wall. I just wanted to tire myself before bed, and he was killing time before heading back to the city center for mass. Interestingly enough, Oskar told me that the trip to the Holy Land had made him lose faith in the church even more. He was a practicing Catholic and had even done the Camino all the way from Poland, but had become disillusioned with the church. Still, he seemed to be trying to rekindle that connection as his plan was to go back and pray at midnight, but by the sounds of it he was pretty much done with organized religion.
Oskar and I made it to the separation wall, which looked even more ominous in the dark. I was actually planning on seeing the wall the following day, so headed straight for Banksy’s own Walled Off Hotel. Oskar and I said goodbye. I went inside, sat at the bar and ordered a Shepherd’s.
It didn’t take long before the girl behind the bar and I got talking. It turned out that she was a member of the Palestinian diaspora in Latin America and had grown up in Peru before moving to Palestine with her (Palestinian) mother.
By that point I had forgotten it was Christmas and was very tired from walking all day. Plus, I needed to catch up on some serious sleep from the previous days, so I asked her to call me a cab and went back to my apartment.
Spending Christmas in Bethlehem and learning about Palestinian Christians got me thinking about what the experience will be like when people like Maurice are gone. Also, Banksy’s piece made me imagine a wild scenario: What if Jesus came back today and visited Bethlehem? How would he feel about the refugee camps and the separation wall? It would probably break his heart.
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