One month before Christmas, Bethlehem is a city that is suffering and afraid. In the past few days, the city is deprived on its Christmas decorations: a decision of the city authorities, in solidarity with the victims of the war which for a month and a half has raged in particular in Gaza.
The true spirit of Christmas
The patriarchs and the heads of the Churches of Jerusalem, in a note dated 10 November, invited their faithful to “stand strong with those who are suffering such afflictions, y this year foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities. We likewise encourage our priests and the faithful to focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas in their pastoral activities, with all the focus directed at holding in our thoughts our brothers and sisters affected by this war and its consequences and with fervent prayers for a just and lasting peace in our beloved Holy Land.”
The Status Quo will nevertheless be respected. On the eve of Advent, the Custos of the Holy land, fra Francesco Patton, as every year, will make his entrance into Bethlehem. Although this year it will be less solemn than usual: there will be a reduced presence of scouts and the procession along Star Street will not be accompanied by music, but will take place in a climate of silence and prayer. The same will be repeated on 24 December with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Christmas with the lights switched off
In an unusually empty Manger Square, in the nearby streets, the electricians are taking down the lights. This year there will not be the usual large Christmas trees, usually the families This year there will not be the large Christmas tree and the Nativity scene. The steps of the Franciscan friars, who every go to in a procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, echo in a completely empty city. “At this time of the year, the Christian families in Bethlehem are beginning to prepare for Christmas, and the places of the birth of Jesus are full of pilgrims, but this year it is different. This year the Christians of the Holy Land are celebrating on their own. We will welcome Christmas with grief and sadness, ” said Lina, a Christian from Bethlehem.
What future is there?
In the streets near the Basilica, the souvenir shops are all closed. A few shopkeepers open by appointment. Production has also stopped: they cannot afford to have costs knowing that the Christmas season has been lost, and that the pieces will remain on the shelves gathering dust. The uncertainty of the future hovers over everything. Sixty to seventy per cent of Bethlehem’s economy is based on tourism. Ninety per cent of the Christians are employed in this sector. 2023 was to have been a record year of presences, after the crisis of Covid, but the war has foiled everything.
The economic repercussions are being felt. Since the start of the war, the main points of access into Bethlehem have been closed and even moving between the different Palestinian cities has become very complicate due to road blocks and closed roads. This has repercussions on the movement and on the prices of goods, including of staples. Many, including among the Christians, are thinking of emigrating, especially the youngest: they see no prospects to found a family and raise children here.
The gift of hope
The Sunday Masses in the Latin parish church of St Catherine, are packed. “People are looking for peace and hope in God,” said the Latin parish priest, fra Rami Asakrieh. “We are approaching Advent. At this time of the year, the Church invites us to accept the invitation of God, his love and his peace. We will concentrate on the true meaning of Christmas, more than showing Christmas. Lights and music are fine expressions of joy, but they are not the true meaning of Christmas.” “As Christians of Bethlehem and the Holy Land,” Lina told us, “we will not give up celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, because this is what brings hope to our lives and with Christmas we feed this hope in our hearts.”