Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Around the World: Bethlehem

I am glad to be participating in Christmas Around the World from Living Life Intentionally, and I am pleased to get to share about Christmas in Bethlehem. As you might imagine, being able to spend Christmas in Bethlehem is a very unique and special experience. In 1999, I found myself on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity, along with thousands of other individuals, literally, from around the world.

This is one of the many things that makes Christmas in Bethlehem so unique: people from around the world flock to Bethlehem for Christmas. I celebrated Christmas Eve alongside Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Israeli Jews, an Australian man, and a couple of British women. Then there was me (a Texan who came there from Egypt where she was studying abroad from her New York College) and my (future) husband (a Bostonian who was also studying abroad in Egypt) -- all talking and getting to know each other as we enjoyed the magical night. On stage, we watched an African children’s choir perform, followed by a European adult choir.

To top it all off, later that evening, there were actually some snowflakes in the area, which is extremely rare for that part of the world. Another bonus of that year, 1999, was that it was a year of optimism and positive feelings and hope for peace in the region, which has since, unfortunately, has changed. I find myself every year hoping to see that optimism and possibility for peace shine through again. It seems at Christmas it often does peak through, as you will se.

As special as my Bethlehem experience was to me, I realize now that because our trip was so quick, that besides the performances and mass at the Church of the Nativity, I did not really get a chance to see or learn much about what Christmas was like for Palestinians living in Bethlehem. 

Luckily, having studied in the Middle East and received an MA in Middle Eastern Studies means I know people who can share the details with me first-hand, which I am happy to share with you. 

A major tradition in Bethlehem (and many other Palestinian villages) at Christmas time entail Christmas parades to the town center for the lighting of Christmas trees. Of course, in Bethlehem, the parade ends at the Church of the Nativity. Kids participate in these parades as part of their scout activities, which are very popular with heavy emphasis on their marching bands.

The scouts there are similar to the Boy Scouts here, but are co-ed and have the marching band emphasis. Also, Santa is a quite popular part of the Christmas celebrations for Palestinians, particularly involving kids dressing up as Santa, which is completely adorable!

A young woman who has lived and taught in Bethlehem explains the magic of Christmas there in this way (she also sent me the photos of Christmas in Bethlehem that I am using here):

Something that really struck me was how it seemed as though the holiday is loved by both Christians and Muslims.  I think the people of Bethlehem realize how blessed they are to live in such an important city during this time and hopes are high.  I wish the world would recognize that Bethlehem is a place in Palestine, a place that some don't necessarily view with the highest regard.   But I do think the Christmas time brings about great hope for the Palestinian people...Christmas in Bethlehem is simply unforgettable.  The time brings together so many people who are both similar and very different and the spirit of love and hope is very present, both on the smiles of the children who get a visit from santa and those who get to spend their Christmas in the very place where Jesus was born. 
As for food, lunch is the big meal of the day and varies according to family, but two popular dishes include Maqloobeh (which translates to upside down) and is a rice and chicken dish and Musakhkahan, a traditional Palestinian dish made with chicken and onions and bread, as well as stuffed grape leaves. Because of a very sick baby this last week, we did not have a chance to take a turn at making any of these dishes, but I think Maqloobeh would be fun to try since you make it in a pan and flip it upside down to serve - how fun!

So, to bring some Bethlehem to your Christmas, try out a new dish, dress your little ones up as Santa or create a parade in front of your nativity -- line  up the stuffed animals, lego men or whatever other items you have and recreate your own Bethlehem parade! (We still need to do this at our house - we have had sick kiddos, which have us behind with lots of things! Hoping everyone will be well by Christmas!) 

Oh - and I found this fun Alphabet book, about the original Christmas in Bethlehem: B is for Bethlehem by Isabel Wilner. It is a precious book. We hope you are enjoying learning about Christmas Around the World through so many wonderful bloggers and that you have a wonderful Christmas in your own little corner of the world! 

P.S. I hope these photos also remind us all of how much we have in common and of the joy the holidays bring to so many around the world!


  1. Lovely post and story. I, too, hope for peace. Thank you for an optomistic view. I hope Palenstine becomes a state/country.

  2. What a interesting and beautiful post. That must have been an amazing experience that you will never forget. I have seen B is for Bethlehem, but I don't think that I've read it.

  3. The book sounds wonderful! I am hoping for peace there too.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I will have to look for that book, it looks great!