Why Christmas isn't coming to Bethlehem this year

The town of Jesus's birth has opted to forgo festivities in solidarity with the people of Gaza

West Bank church cancels Christmas celebrations

West Bank church cancels Christmas celebrations
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The enormous plastic Christmas tree that would normally dominate Manger Square in Bethlehem is conspicuously absent this December.

Gone too are the sparkly lights above the plaza and the throngs of pilgrims who come to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the place where it happened.

For the first time in decades, Christmas celebrations are officially cancelled in Bethlehem.

Municipal authorities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city made the decision to show solidarity with Palestinians during the war in the Gaza Strip, where more than 17,000 people have been killed, according to the Health Ministry.

“This is the place where Jesus was born,” said Father Issa Thaljieh, the parish priest of the Church of the Nativity, originally built in the fourth century on the spot where Jesus was thought to have been born.

"This is the place where [Jesus] sent the message of peace and love, and unfortunately we’ve never seen this peace.

“This is a message for all over the world … to stop the war, to stop killing civilians, to stop killing the kids.”

Speaking in the basilica that is one of Christianity's holiest sites, Fr Thaljieh told The National that he would still be officiating at Christmas religious services, but there would be none of the usual celebrations.

Ordinarily, hundreds of pilgrims would be crammed into the church, while Manger Square would be buzzing with excitement, he said.

On a recent Saturday, the church was nearly empty, save for a handful of young pupils from a nearby Christian school and the Ghattas family.

Both parties were in the cellar-like space that has been built over the spot Jesus is believed to have been born.

On a normal day, it would be hard to find a place to stand but today the view of the star that marks the exact spot of Christ's birth was unobstructed for the handful of faithful visiting.

"I'm so sad about what is happening in Gaza," said one young schoolgirl.

Even at the age of 13, the pupils accepted that Christmas this year would have to be different.

"We would like as kids to have celebrations but since our people in Gaza are not happy, they are sad, we will not be able to be happy," the girl said.

For George Ghattas, who works with a tourist agency that helps to arrange visits for pilgrims to Bethlehem, work has slowed dramatically since October 7.

"This year is different because of the situation here in Palestine," Mr Ghattas told The National as he toured the church with his wife, father and one-year-old son.

"We pray for peace and to keep the peace for this city."

The Christmas cancellation has been met with a sense of resignation by many in town, as no one was expecting a busy festive season in the first place.

Bethlehem's economy relies heavily on tourism, but almost all visitors stopped coming on October 7, the day Hamas attacked southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, and the war in Gaza began.

To make matters even more complicated, Israel has effectively locked down the occupied West Bank, making it extremely difficult for people to enter Bethlehem and other parts of the Palestinian territories.

A short drive from the church, Elias Al Arja, chairman of Palestine's hotel association, said the town had finally begun to claw its way back after the shutdowns and diminished tourist numbers caused by Covid-19.

Christmas celebrations were never cancelled during the pandemic.

Mr Al Arja, who owns the 220-room Bethlehem hotel, said that in a normal year the city's 5,000 hotel rooms would have a 75 per cent occupancy rate.

This year, it is essentially zero, with only the occasional journalist stopping overnight.

He said most hotels have simply closed down to weather the economic storm. Only seven of his 70 staff are still coming to work, mostly to keep things clean and secure.

Mr Al Arja said two of his family members were killed on October 17 in a strike at Al Ahli Hospital that Hamas and Israel have blamed on each other.

“When your relatives in Gaza died and you're celebrating, it's not [appropriate],” he said.

The last time Christmas festivities were cancelled was in 1987 during the First Intifada, said Fr Peter DuBrul, who has worked in Bethlehem for nearly 50 years.

Fr Garrett Gundlach, a fellow Jesuit priest who teaches at Bethlehem University, said his students are hesitant to acknowledge any joy in their lives when so much destruction is being wrought in Gaza.

Some do not feel they can even post a picture of their birthday cake on social media.

'It would be ridiculous to then celebrate Christmas with all the fanfare,” Fr Gundlach said.

“It's very much coming out of a place of collective mourning."

Updated: December 12, 2023, 5:16 AM