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Backstory: The manger gets farther away

Recognizing Bethlehem – the site of the Christmas story – is increasingly difficult.

By Amelia ThomasCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2006


"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ..."

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The holiday carol couldn't be more right. The Christmas lights are on, but nobody's home; plastic Santas on Star Street wiggle to Arabic renditions of "Frosty the Snowman"; Jesus holograms and vials of "Best Quality Holy Water, Authenticity Guaranteed" crowd the shelves of Nativity Street shops.

But nowadays the streets are empty of Christmas souvenir shoppers. Bethlehem, historic birthplace of Jesus and modern-day home to 48,000 Palestinians – teetering on the precarious brink of the West Bank – has brought out its usual line of products: And, like much of the atmosphere in this important Holy Land site, it's not always what the serious pilgrim might expect. There are plastic Christmas trees, frothy tinsel, and fluorescent Angel Gabriel baubles.

But, unlike pre-intifada years when floods of Christian tourists from the US, Europe, and Latin America descended on the town each year with credit cards at the ready (filling up on Virgin Mary candles – "see her weep wax" – and shirts emblazoned with "My mom went to the birthplace of Christ and all I got was this lousy T-shirt") hardly anyone's here to appreciate it.

This may have something to do with how tourists now have to get here. A daytrip to the Christmas sites of Bethlehem starts at the vast, distinctly unmerry, military "security terminal" opened by Israel just before Christmas 2005. Along with the "security wall," it blocks what was for centuries the pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Amid signs enthusiastically requesting that you "Please Keep this Terminal Clean," the visitor finds him- or herself in a vast metal hangar. Gantries high overhead are patrolled by yawning machinegun-toting soldiers. An occasional snippet of Snoop Dogg blasts out incongruously through the public address system, testament to other bored soldiers, armed with CDs and questionable musical taste, secreted somewhere behind the scenes.

After passport checks and a fair amount of wandering the eerily quiet terminal to find the exit, visitors pass through stadiumlike turnstiles – the squeeze immediately prompting questions about how a heavily pregnant woman on a donkey would fare here today. Then, visitors move into Bethlehem through a gap in the looming concrete wall, emblazoned overhead with a faintly wry Israeli Tourist Board message: "Go In Peace."

The intrepid tourist can then choose from dozens of taxi drivers all vying for trade from the one customer to come their way all day. They assure a bargain price – "Ten dollars, cheap price, my friend; is long journey" – for what's actually a very short trip to the heart of one of the great religious sites of the world: Manger Square.

The cobbled square, lined with shops (largely shuttered), money changers (mostly closed) and the St. George restaurant (almost empty), feeds onto a second diminutive square peppered with touts clutching olivewood rosaries, and tour guides without flocks. Here stands the first item on any good Christmas tour of Bethlehem: the ancient Church of the Nativity.

Originally built around 330 AD, then rebuilt in its current form in the Sixth century by Roman Emperor Justinian, Christians largely agree it marks the birthplace of Jesus, though archeological evidence suggests it's also the site of a much earlier shrine to another Middle Eastern hero, Adonis. It is administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. And a squeeze through the tiny entrance, known as the "Door of Humility" – so-called because you can't help but bow in order to step in – lands visitors in an orthodox mass. A few young priests in black pillbox hats and padded vests chant amid a medieval fantasy of gold, crystal, and ancient icons.

To one side, an older orthodox priest, purple cassock stretched tight across an ample belly, whispers glumly to the only tour group of this recent day: "It seems it will be a sad Christmas. Nobody is here. Not a sausage. In old days, we had 5,000 visitors per day; now, perhaps 50."