Christmas In Bethlehem

Probably a better title would have been ‘What’s An Atheist Doing In The Holyland During The Holidays’ but I thought that was a tad too long.

As a young Catholic boy growing up in the 1960’s I was mesmerized by the stories from the bible, especially the Nativity. Even though my beliefs changed, it seems you can take the Catholic boy out of the church but you can’t take away the impact. Those stories made me dream about visiting the ‘holyland’ one day.  Fast forward about 45 years and I found myself touring all the places I had read about as a child.  In my year of travelling I have visited churches, cathedrals, places claiming that ‘Mary and Jesus slept here’, mosques and temples but when I had the opportunity to spend the holidays in Israel I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.  I knew it would make the biblical stories come alive and while it was interesting I must say I was a little disappointed.  It wasn’t quite what I expected but after visiting so many historic and religious sites I should have known better what to expect. Like most historic sites I’ve visited, it was over run with souvenir shops and touts.

I had spent weeks searching for a tour that would take me from Tel Aviv to Bethlehem on December 24th, not as easy as I thought (it seems easier to book something in your home country??).  I finally found a tour with a seat available, on Viator which I had used in Italy.  I wanted to use an organized tour because of all the warnings people were giving me.   I would be entering “PALESTINIAN TERRITORY”… the images you just got reading those words are the same ones that made me a little nervous.  The tour would be a half day, the bus picking me up from my apartment and taking me to Jerusalem where I would transfer to a minibus that would take our group to Bethlehem (pretty much a suburb of Jerusalem that you have to cross a fortress like border, in order to get to).  I was told the tour was the easiest and safest plan and when I asked the guides about staying in Bethlehem longer and getting a taxi back myself, they all said that wasn’t a good idea because I would hate to be stranded at the border late at night.

We were waved through as we passed from Israel to Palestine, no security check, and it seems no passports required (but a much different story returning to Israel). Our bus parked and we joined the growing throngs of devotees and tourists making their way to Manger Square.  It turns out to be a large, concrete, public square like you would find in any European city.  The only difference would be the big mosque on one side, the Bethlehem Peace Center on another side and in front of the massive Church Of The Nativity (actually a complex of chapels and churches).  On another side of the square is a big stage with a giant screen and a huge Christmas tree in the middle.  There were signs all over the area to welcome visitors to Bethlehem and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  When we arrived there were a few hundred people milling around, a few dressed up as Santa Claus (one handing out small toys to children) but when we returned about an hour later the crowd had swelled by thousands.

We went inside the Basilica of the Church of the Nativity,  it was early morning which may be why the lineup was so short… but it turns out the line to get down into the manger grotto was much much longer.  We went down to a lower level cave like chapel where the guide pointed out the area where the remains of hundreds of babies were found, victims of the ‘Slaughter Of The Innocents’, killed by King Herod in his search for Jesus.  The remains had all been removed, our guide said, “so as not to upset the children touring the church”… ah that would be one reason.  We were led to a back passageway behind the chapel altar that ended at a doorway.  The guide pointed to a tiny hole, the size of a nail, which we could look through to see inside the manger grotto.  I couldn’t see anything and my camera saw even less, but because of the timing of the tour, that would be my one glimpse at it.

We went back up and outside to a courtyard where a large Creche was set up that everyone was posed next to, for their photo which will likely show up on some Christmas cards next year.   On the other side of the courtyard is the Church of St. Catherine, a relatively modern church that features a beautiful pipe organ and what looks like a glass coffin containing a statue of the baby Jesus (truth be told, it kind of creeped me out).  It’s also the church where Midnight Mass is performed on Christmas Eve and broadcast to the giant screen and the crowd outside as well as televised for Christians around the world.  Directly underneath the church is the chapel and writing room for St. Jerome, who  transcribed the first edition of the bible, that features a beautiful stained glass window.

As we emerged from the church, the crowd in Manger Square had swelled to a few thousand with marching bands.  It was just a preview of the show that would come later (and I would miss).   We made our way through the crowd to the Milk Grotto where, Christians believe, Mary stopped to breast feed the baby Jesus, as the family fled to escape King Herod.  It’s now a relatively serene place where both Christians and Muslims go, believing scrapings from the stones (calcium) in the grotto enhance fertility and boost the quality of a mother’s milk.  Mother’s mix the scrapings with water and drink it, but a calcium tablet would probably do just as well.

Before leaving Bethlehem, we made a stop at Shepherd’s Field, a very holy site for Christians who believe is where ‘Shepherds were tending their sheep, on a cold winter’s night…’ and the Angel appeared telling them that Jesus was born.  For me, the best part is the vantage point where  you can see Jerusalem on the other side of the valley and the electrified fence that separates Israel and the Palestinian Territory.  After a short stop at the Field… and a long wait for our mini-bus, we were taken to the required souvenir shop where the guides get their commissions.  They are a part of every tour I have booked, and very tough to get out of. It’s best to just go quietly inside, look around and leave (usually prices are higher at these shops because they have to pay the extra commissions).  The strange thing about this very large shop, in Palestinian Territory, is all the souvenirs directed at Jews. There are Menorah’s and Stars of David scattered throughout the shop.

We were then shuttled back to the border where armed guards were now patrolling the surrounding streets.  You can’t drive across, you have to walk through a passageway with steel gates on either side of you, kind of like what they herd cattle through in the stockyards.  There were no guards around that we could see, so we continued through the passageway.  We finally reached a turnstile that you have to pass through one at a time.  You enter a small room and are told by a faceless voice to put all your belongings on a conveyor belt, you can sense that you are being watched. Then the voice tells you to hold up your passport, you hold it up to a glass window and then are told to proceed. But before you leave you are asked to once again hold up your passport.  It is by far the most secure border I have ever crossed and with the huge concrete and steel walls separating the two, you feel like you are either entering or leaving a prison.  There were taxis lined up outside (I could have actually stayed longer but still wouldn’t want to risk trying to get a taxi there late at night) and I was able to negotiate a ride straight back to Tel Aviv.

If I did it again I would either book something from home that was an organized tour or seeing as it was relatively safe and easy I would probably just go it alone; take a taxi in Jerusalem to the border crossing and then walk across both ways.  All the sites are also within walking distance. A tour guide helps but you can get the same out of it if you do your homework. It wasn’t quite the experience I had expected but I’m glad I did it… and no it didn’t change any of my beliefs (and I’m pretty sure I was one of a very few atheists who joined the ‘pilgrimage’ to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve).

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