Christmas in Palestine

Christmas is very important in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, as it contains Bethlehem, the town in which Jesus was born.

Bethlehem is about six miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew/Aramaic ®†®בֵּית†לֶחֶם†and ‘house of meat’ in Arabic ©بيت†لحم®Æ†The Hebrew/Aramaic name predates the Arabic one by several hundred years and carries the meaning used in the Bible, The name comes from the fact the area is very fertile and good for farming, particularly for growing wheat which was made into bread.

Only about 20% of Palestinians are Christian, but Muslim Palestinians are also proud that Jesus (who is respected as a prophet in Islam) was born in a Palestinian City.

On Christmas Eve a parade through the city takes place. There are bagpipe bands , which you might not expect but playing the bagpipes is a tradition left over from when the British army occupied the area between 1920 and 1948. People also dress up as Santa Claus and give out sweets. The streets and main square are decorated with lights.

Perhaps the most famous part of Christmas in Bethlehem is the church service of the Mass of the Nativity. It is held on Christmas Eve in the Church of the Nativity in anger Square. The church is built over the place where it’s traditionally thought that Jesus was born.

There’s a small door into the Church called the door of humility. The church was built, by the Romans, about 500 years after Jesus was born. The most holy part of the church is the Grotto of the Nativity, which is beneath the main altar. A silver star marks the place where Jesus was said to have been born. It had been prophesied in the Bible that the Jewish Messiah or Saviour (as Christians believe Jesus is) would be born in Bethlehem.

The Church is administered by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Midnight Mass is led by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jerusalem. The church is crowded and lots of frankincense, one of the gifts bought to the baby Jesus, is burnt as a sign of prayer.

People also sing Christmas Carols in Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the Church.

The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but on January 6th & 7th.

In Arabic Happy/Merry Christmas is Eid Milad Majid ©عيد†ميلاد†مجيد®†which means ‘Glorious Birth Feast’. In Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken, it’s ‘Eedookh Breekha’ which means ‘Blessed be your Christmas’.

Christmas in Bethlehem, a city divided under occupation, can be tense. We pray for peace and reconciliation in the place where Jesus was born.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in the dark street shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight