This is how you celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem
Many Europeans associate Christmas with gifts, tinsel and candy canes. Each year, thousands of Christians also come to a place full of tradition and history to experience Christmas where the festival originated: Bethlehem.
Joseph also set off. From Nazareth in Galilee he went to Bethlehem, which is in Judea. This is the place where King David came from. “(Luke, 1.2)
The little stable, the shepherds around the crib where the Jesus child lies, Mary, Joseph – it is exactly this image that we associate with Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born, into which the star led the three kings into. Every year on the 24th of December, this city, which is more than 2,000 years old, takes center stage in all German churches. And every year, even German Christians make their way to the real Bethlehem, where no crib and stable, but a church around the place, where once everything should have happened, can be found.
Back to basics, back to Bethlehem. It is less than ten kilometers from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is now in the West Bank, has nearly 30,000 inhabitants and is separated from the Israeli territory by a high wall. The way which leads there, with one of the small Arab mini-buses cost no more than two Euros ride. Fairy lights, Christmas balls – the houses here already hint that Christmas is.
On the large Manger Square, which Christians also call Nativity Square, in front of the Church of the Nativity, the total Christmas chaos prevails on December 24th. Children who scurry through the crowd and give away hot cardamom coffee, pilgrims from all over the world who sing and pray and wait for the great Midnight Mass to begin in St. Catherine’s Church next to the old Nativity Church. Nuns sell small gifts to raise money for their social projects. Bagpipe music, trumpets – all confused, but confused but unique.
Surrounded by police, soldiers and thousands of pilgrims, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Jordanian Fouad Twal, solemnly invades the church shortly before midnight. For hours, the faithful are crowded together and are glad to have grabbed one of those few places in the church. Italians, Poles, and Brazilians – the visitors of this service come from everywhere.
In the crowd every year: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The service lasts almost two hours and ends with Twal’s procession to the neighboring birth grotto, the place where Jesus was born. Inside, songs are sung in French, English, and Latin. Outside, lays Bethlehem, the little town.
It’s a Christmas that does not have much to do with what we know from home. No snow, no Santa Claus, no presents. Nevertheless, it is pure Christmas, right where it all started, an unforgettable experience.