Christmas in today's Bethlehem

211208 Elias

Elias Boulos (25Y), Media Assistant at the East Jerusalem YMCA, photo by Eliaa Awwad, 2021

Elias, a staff member of the East Jerusalem YMCA, shares how he and other Palestinian Christians celebrate Christmas:

“The celebration in Bethlehem is special. It’s not that Bethlehem has the brightest lights or even the best Christmas decorations, it has the history that makes the people living in the area relate to Christmas as part of their own history.

I feel connected to Christmas as I grow up more than ever. I was raised in Beit Sahour, which is a town near Bethlehem. But you know it better as the Shepherds Field. If you are familiar with the biblical story of Christmas, it is the place where the shepherds were sleeping when an angel appeared and told them to spread the joyful news of the birth of a new king that will be the salvation of the whole people.

The celebrations of Christmas in Bethlehem are special. Almost every day starting mid-November you can sign up for an event/workshop to join. My favorite events are choirs singing Christmas hymns in churches, especially those that are organized in the Nativity Church.

Christmas officially begins when Bethlehem lights its Christmas Tree, announcing, according to the Christian Tradition, Light conquering darkness. This is followed by each city lighting its own Christmas tree across the holy land. Then there would be an international Christmas market in the old city of Bethlehem, where many consulates and embassies around the world would have their national food and products that are related to Christmas presented and available for sale, alongside the local production of Bethlehem’s wine, olive oil, and other Palestinian Traditional food.

Christians also celebrate two important occasions in the Christmas seasons, which are Saint Nickolas Holiday and Saint Barbara Holiday. Each has its unique rich rituals. Saint Nickolas is celebrated in the town of Beit Jala, which is next to Bethlehem and is considered the city of Saint Nickolas. They would all wear red caps and ropes and roam the city running and spreading chocolate to children who participate in the event. On the other hand, Saint Barbara is celebrated within each household. Usually, a sweet dish containing wheat and candy is made to celebrate the legend of Saint Barbara, who, according to the Eastern Christian Legends, were protected by God when she hid in a wheat field. This is why wheat is the star of Saint Barbara’s Dish.

While everything else is going, Scouts all around the country have intensive training for their musical marching band, preparing for Christmas Eve. This massive event is a hundred-years old tradition that has been happening on the 24th of December in Bethlehem ever since. Thousands of People, from the holy land and the world, gather in the manager square to watch around 50 marching bands playing Christmas music before the beginning of the Christmas Eve Prayer at the nativity, which traditionally has much high official participation, including the President of the State of Palestine, alongside with many countries’ representatives.

As I have been doing for many years, I gather with friends right after the scout’s march, which I participate in because I am a scout. This gathering is most likely to happen at a local restaurant, where we eat our usual Palestinian barbeque before we head out our Christmas Eve prayer, either at the Shepherds Field YMCA or local Christian Churches. Then comes what we have been all waiting for, Christmas eve with the Family.

Christmas eve with the family is always the peak of the Christmas celebrations. We would have many games prepared. And of course, Santa makes his first appearance. As it is known around the world, Santa would leave his presents under the tree while everyone is sleeping, we do that, however, we have something called mini-gifts that usually are from the grandparents to hand out during Christmas eve.

Christmas Day starts very early when the Gifts unwrapping takes place. Usually, Palestinian families live together in one building. Therefore, you can hear cousins meeting early in the morning playing with their remote-controlled cars, play-dough, or their newest bicycle, waking up the rest of the family to start preparing for Christmas day. For the second time this year, after Easter, everyone will be excited for Church. In my town, Beit Sahour, All Churches are downtown. We meet everyone after the Christmas Service. Everyone will be dressed in their Christmas outfits which will vary between these four colors: red, green, white, and gold. Later on, everyone heads home to have Christmas Lunch, the biggest meal of the year. Christmas lunch usually does not have less than 15 persons in small families. Larger families reserve restaurants because a single house won’t be enough.

After lunch, and especially in the shepherds' Field, we have another scout’s march. It is called “The Candle March”. This march would have hundreds of people from Beit Sahour watching the three main Scouts in this town. Everyone would be on the side of the streets holding candles. This march is dedicated to praying for justice and peace in the holy land and around the world.

Many Christian organizations and scouts take the opportunity of Christmas to launch charity events. Caravans are set in many cities across the holy land to collect clothes, money, and many items to prepare for the cold winter.

I should mention that a quite good number of Palestinian Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January and the 19th of January. The 7th is celebrated by the Greek and the Russian Orthodox and the 19th is celebrated by the Armenian Orthodox. Their whole calendar is shifted 13 days later. The literally repeat the events that I have mentioned above, but 13 days later. For example, they celebrate Saint Nickolas day on the 16th of December. Therefore, the holy land stays decorated until the end of each Church’s Celebrations. In other words, until the end of January.

Every Christmas celebration varies from country to country. But the core stays always the same. This is why Christmas is a very special holiday to millions of people around the world. But I personally highly recommend at least one Christmas in the Holy Land. You won’t regret it.

From the little town of Bethlehem, and the Field of the Shepherds, wherever you are reading this, I wish you a very merry Christmas, filled with hot wine, a cozy setting, and lovely Carols with the ones you love.”