Following God One Step at a Time

Christmas in Bethlehem

on December 20, 2015

Shepherd’s Field is where shepherds tended their flocks in Jesus’ day, (as in “The First Noel”) where, according to tradition, the angels appeared and proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and good will to men.” The field is gone, replaced by parkland with beautifully tended flowerbeds and several churches, including a shepherd’s cave converted into a chapel.”  (Description taken from post by Barbara A. Noe on December 21, 2010, a books editor with National Geographic)

Wikipedia states that the holy site known as the Grotto, which sits under the Church of the Nativity, is today associated with the cave in which the birth of Jesus happened.   The site of the birth of Jesus is described by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165), who noted in his “Dialogue with Trypho” that the Holy family had taken refuge in a cave outside of Bethlehem.  The quoted line is “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.”

Bethlehem SilverStarJesusBirth (the silver star marking the spot of the birth of Jesus)

The Church of the Nativity is a basilica located in Bethlehem. The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine and his mother Helena, and completed in 339.  It sits over the site that traditionally marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ.  It was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts  (between the Jews and Samaritans) in the 6th century.   A new basilica was built in 565 by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor.  The site of the Church of the Nativity has had numerous additions since then. Due to its cultural and geographical history, the site holds a prominent religious significance to those of both the Christian and Muslim faiths.  The site of the Church of the Nativity is a United Nations’ World Heritage Site.  (This paragraph is summarized from Wikipedia.)

Below is a picture of The Church of the Nativity.

Bethlehem ChurchofNativity

The Holy site is in danger due to both religious and political disputes in the Middle East and from lack of repairs.  Shortly after the visit to Israel of Pope Francis in 2014, the cave beneath the church was set on fire by an unknown arsonist.  The church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities.  Only about 20% of Palestinians are Christian.  All three traditions maintain monastic communities on the site.  As a result, there have been repeated brawls among monk trainees over quiet respect for others’ prayers, and even the division of floor space for cleaning duties.  The Palestinian police have been called to restore peace and order.

 The church is in major disrepair. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 1800s. The rain that seeps into the building accelerates the rotting of the wood, damages the structural integrity of the building, and also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings.  In 2010, the Palestinian Authority announced that a multimillion-dollar restoration program was imminent.

To read the entire Wikipedia post, click here.

Below is a summary of conditions and activities this Christmas season:

–Christmas in Bethlehem 2015 –

A large paved courtyard in front of the Church of the Nativity is the site where crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols while waiting for midnight services. The Mass service is led by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jerusalem.  Each year, thousands of Christians make a winter pilgrimage to the holy city of Bethlehem, following in the footsteps of the biblical Magi (three wise men). (The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches do not celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather January 6th and 7th. They hold services in Bethlehem on those days.)

On Christmas Eve there is a parade through the town.  There are bagpipe bands in the parade, which you might not expect.  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 all decorated with lights.

To find information on Christmas customs in other countries around the world, click here.

Usually this time of year, 60-70 buses would arrive every morning in Bethlehem, but now there are maybe five. Bethlehem is in Palestine, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem, which is in Israel.  A wave of violence and protests has kept many tourists from making the annual pilgrimage, though much of the trouble has occurred away from Bethlehem.  Because of Israel’s West Bank separation wall, all visitors and tourists from nearby Jerusalem, where the only nearby airport is located, must go through a military checkpoint to get to the town of Bethlehem.  Now the army has increased the number of roadblocks around Bethlehem in response to the violence that erupted.  At least 126 Palestinians and 19 Israelis have been killed since the beginning of October, 2015. The Israeli army arrest-raids in the refugee camp near Bethlehem have increased since the start of October. Troops now conduct four or five raids every month, usually around 4am. Because peace seems so far away, Palestinian authorities have now drastically scaled down Christmas festivities this year.

“Before the world came to rejoice and sing with us in Bethlehem. Today (in December 2015) there is nothing,” said tour guide Khamis. “This year, Christmas in Bethlehem is sad and depressing.”  On December 5th of 2015, the star at the top of the Christmas tree in Manger Square in Bethlehem was lit, signifying the start of the festive season.  “We had a message to give to the world,” says Vera Baboun, a Christian, and Mayor of Bethlehem since 2012. “When we lit the tree, we gave a message that we cannot be without hope. We have to be with hope, despite everything surrounding us… This political situation cannot take away the joy for the children, nor prevent us from celebrating.”  There were no fireworks, which traditionally marks the lighting of the Christmas tree.  Instead, the Mayor looked for a different method to mark the season.  Churches around the world were invited to ring their bells at the same time, as a symbol of peace and solidarity. “Sixty nine churches rang their bells when the Christmas tree of Bethlehem was lit,” says the Mayor. “If humanity remains silent, let the bells of Bethlehem speak instead.”

Later in December, Mayor Baboun returned from a memorial service for a teenager killed by Israeli soldiers in a refugee camp just south of Bethlehem.  Her voice echoes sadness and frustration. “This is the reality that we live, the challenge that we live,” she says. But there is hope. “We have to keep on the message that we carry (of peace).”  It is difficult, since 82% of Bethlehem falls inside Area C, which is territory under direct Israeli military and administrative control. In the Mayor’s 2015 Christmas message, she writes: “True peace can never prevail in the world as long as the city of peace does not live in peace. We remain hopeful that the star of Bethlehem will be forever sparkling.”  The residents of Bethlehem say that their slogan this year is “Pray for peace in the Holy Land, pray for justice.”

To read the entire news article go to The Guardian.

I would agree that only God will be able to bring peace to the Son of God’s birth place, Bethlehem.  Please pray for peace.

The Christmas tree in Bethlehem, beside the Church of Nativity. Photograph: Abdelrahman Younis/Reuters (photo below)

Bethlehem ChristmasTree

To listen to the traditional Christmas song “The First Noel”, that sings of the shepherds in their fields click here.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this post on Christmas in Bethlehem as much as I enjoyed researching it.  I pray you find love and joy this Christmas, and I pray for peace for Bethlehem, for Israel, for the world.

Merry Christmas!






4 responses to “Christmas in Bethlehem

  1. Gene says:

    Liked this. So much need for peace!


  2. Interesting post. I very much hope for peace.


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