There was a festive atmosphere in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. A large crowd filled the square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity for the Christmas tree lighting celebration on December 3. Many children, youth and adults were eagerly awaiting this moment. From the stage, which was placed to the right of the large Christmas tree, two presenters introduced the guests and marked the pace of the event. As scheduled, the celebration began at 6:20 p.m. with musical accompaniment. The first to perform were the Scouts from Bethlehem, followed by the singer Luna Amin and the choir of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, who sang Christmas carols.
The mayor of Bethlehem then went on the stage for her traditional speech given on the occasion of this event. Vera Baboun thanked all of the authorities present and reflected on the year’s theme “Mercy is the spirit of Christmas,” in the spirit of Pope Francis’ message. The mayor expressed words of encouragement, her hope for peace and also proudly voiced her support for contest singer Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian performer. After a performance by a choir of Maltese nuns and one by the singer Shafeeq Alsadi, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Alhamdulla spoke. “We believe in peace; we believe in mercy,” he said, when two balloons were sent into the air as a sign of peace. The large Christmas tree was then blessed by the heads of the Christian churches, who approached the tree together. Also present were the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land: the new guardian of the fraternity, Fr. Artemio Vitores, the new pastor of St. Catherine’s, Fr. Rami Asakrieh, and the new assistant pastor, Fr. Emad Rofael. With solemn music and after the countdown in Arabic, the tree was lit, with the enthusiasm of those present in the square. Many residents of Bethlehem were present, as well as pilgrims, tourists and people from all over Palestine.
Elwa attended the celebration with her daughters and family, and she stayed to take pictures, “I am a Muslim, but I love this event. Here in Bethlehem, Muslims and Christians live together. We live a few minutes from the Church.” Gabi, a middle-aged man from Beit Jala, has always come to see the lighting, but he said in his amazement, “I really did not expect all these people [to come] this year.” A woman with carrying a child in her arms said, “I am a Christian, but I'm not from here. My husband is, and I'm very happy to be here because it is my first time here with my daughter,”
“For centuries, we Muslims and Christians have lived together here and this is a celebration for everyone,” said Paul, an innkeeper, who is originally from Bethlehem. Many young people attended the tree lighting. Rami, who is about twenty years old, is a Muslim and said that Christmas is very important for him: “Here people are happy; they love each other. Christmas means happiness, coming together and having moments of sharing with those whom we love. I want to come to Bethlehem every year at Christmastime. His mother, her hair covered by a hijab, smiled and took pictures of her children, dressed in red Santa hats, before the illuminated tree in Bethlehem.