Panoramic of Manger Square, Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2015 - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Panoramic of Manger Square, Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2015 – Miss Maps – http://www.MissMaps.com

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, what a magical place to spend Christmas Eve!

We left early Christmas Eve morn, beginning with a walk through Jerusalem’s German Colony where we were staying to a bus stop where we waited for a blue and white bus to the West Bank. Through an uninviting building and past young men and women dressed in tan uniform, black beret, black boots and matching black submachine guns, we followed others who’d also arrived on our bus. Members of the Palestinian forces were so frequently seen that eventually they became unnoticed. Up and down streets desperately in need of repair, past cement barriers covered in political propaganda, requests for freedom and signs of peace shattered by war. The Wall of Apartheid, also referred to as the Separation Barrier and West Bank Barrier, along with the security forces in place were constant reminders of place.

We were in the Holy City of Bethlehem, and in choosing to tread on this ground, we also chose to tread on the ground of historical battles and controversial practices. I really like to stay away from political commotion, but in and around Israel it’s nearly impossible to do so. In a big way, war has become as a big a part of the area’s history as religion has been for thousands of years, and both are unescapable as a visitor to these lands.

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Right turn, left turn, left turn, right, we came to a crowd of children donning brightly colored uniforms, a welcomed contrast to military men. Our pace quickened as we sped past younger scouts trying their best to stand in straight rows and listen to their leaders. I laughed as a girl of seven or eight years stood mid-street and secretly tried to shove the final bites of a falafel pita into her mouth when her leaders seemed not to look. Farther up the street, we found cotton candy stands set up in the trunk of a hatchback car and a large stage set up and sitting empty. We found a place to stand in the warming morning sun, and stopped near older Scouts clothed in red, green and tan. Each carried a bagpipe, a giveaway that we were about to get a special Christmas concert.

Click the video to get a taste of Bagpipes playing in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2015 – taken by Anika 🙂

 

It certainly was something special – soon after we claimed our street side spot, the Scouts began marching in place and playing bagpipes to the tune of Jingle Bells. For over two hours, we stayed in the same square plaza as the parade of Scouts circled round and round, playing cadences and carols on their instruments and others marching along to the beat of their own drums. As a grand finale, two soldiers carrying Palestinian flags repelled down the side of the square’s tallest building, one shocking onlookers with Spiderman-like skills, turning upside down midway through his decent and stopping a brisk slide down the rope with his face just inches from the ground.

With the grand finale over, it was time for the crowd to shuffle along to the city’s main square. We dodged police barriers, cut off 4x4s filled with security guards, listened to locals telling us to cut through back alleys, and followed Star Street, the path taken by the holy family upon their arrival to Bethlehem, to the city’s largest plaza, Manger Square. Standing in the shadow of a towering minaret, we looked across the grand square at play trees and even taller tree adorned in ornaments of royal reds and golds. A priest dressed in white sang out in prayer beside a life-size Nativity Scene. As he finished the prayer, we squeezed through a group of young men excitedly conversing in Arabic, eager to spend this holiday celebrating amongst others from around the world whose faith had brought them to this place on this day.

Still following the Singing Priest we got stuck at roadblock where security gates, brick walls, and a large screen broadcasting the area’s main events. After appearing on screen multiple times (and bringing us with them twice) a group of teenage boys took a satisfied step aside and let us through

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A few more steps and we found three men dressed in costumes one might imagine to see on a jester or lion tamer. They spoke to us quickly and quietly, “You may enter now. Say nothing. Remain silent.”

Inside, row after after row was filled with priests, nuns and tourists. Front and center sat men dressed in white, black and a beautiful fuchsia. We were right on time to a party we didn’t know was happening: Christmas Eve Afternoon Mass at Church of the Nativity. We found a seat on the right side of the church with a premium view of the priests and congregation. Service started just as we sat down, and nearly a minute in we took notice of a late arrival. The Singing Priest shuffled in and took his seat, trying to hide his cheeks rosy with embarrassment. It turns out he was to help lead the service but tight security had gotten in his way even more than ours!

We sat for a majority of the service, following along with books bound especially for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Mass. After an hour, we realized daylight was slipping away from us and we’d yet to see much of the city. I told Ben there was a stone down some stairs that we needed to seek out. The family I’d worked  with in Bucharest insisted we go, drawing on their own experiences from a similar trip in August, “Touch the very very center,” the elder boy had said, “That’s exactly where I touched.”

We walked to the back of the church and took a left down a hallway. Not knowing exactly what we were looking for, we followed other visitors with hopes they would lead us to the stone.

A line of patient pilgrims drew our attention to a small door and down a stairwell. We followed the others and found ourselves in an underground grotto decorated with chandeliers and flickering candles said to be the location where Jesus was born. A small room, it was filled wall to wall with people trying to reach the front so they might kneel under an alter and touch the stone. Ben and I waited our turn amongst the others. What happened next still sends chills through my spine and turns a smile in my lips.

From the stairwell, a woman’s voice called, “Anika – Anika!” I followed the direction of the voice and looked to my right.

Standing on the steps… I’m feeling the sting of tears wanting to escape right now.. Standing on the steps was a great friend I’d met while working in Kuwait. We shared many coffee dates, desert outings and supportive chats together last year, and still keep in contact via the typical Facebook updates. Neither of us knew the other had plans to visit Israel or Palestine or Bethlehem. And neither of us expected to ever reunite with a true friend that day.

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Requests previously made for “silence and respect” flew out of my memory, up the stairs, and out the door. “Oh. My. God. Nancy?!” we went back and forth, exchanging hugs, disbelief and taking photos with each other. Still in one of the most holy spaces in Christianity, I lost my mind, she lost hers, but a security guard helped us find them when he ‘hush’ed us and reminded us to hurry along. Agreeing to meet upstairs in a more open environment, I touched the stone’s center and left.

Upstairs, I quickly filled Ben in and introduced the two of them, a French man and a French Canadian. I didn’t care so much about the stone anymore. Christmas magic had already played out in an unbelievable way! She had plans with others she’d met at her hostel, and Ben and I had more exploring to do as well, so we left each other after a couple more huge hugs, wishing “Merry Christmas” and agreeing that this was a most unique Christmas present.

The rest of the day, I was in a dreamy cloud of delight – in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve with my brother and a beautiful friend. After several more hours of soaking in the Christmas Spirit, Ben and I returned down the same maze of streets past gun-yielding security forces now more prevalent than before. Every third step, we passed a guard and every fifth we passed a dark truck holding more officers and more weapons. Not there to harm, only to protect.

 

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An exciting, exhilarating mix of cultures, of religions, of peace, of war, and of friendships.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, what everlasting memories you’ve created. What a magical place to spend Christmas Eve!

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