Backstory: The manger gets farther away
Recognizing Bethlehem – the site of the Christmas story – is increasingly difficult.
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He poses with tourists for photos until a cellphone suddenly shrieks, bouncing a tinny pop melody around the walls of the cavernous space. "Lovely ladies, excuse me," he says, toddling off toward the phone, "it might be my wife."Skip to next paragraph
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Tourists, shepherded by a local Palestinian guide, move through a door, where, on the opposite side, the same solemn young priests from the mass sell devotional candles for a steep $15 per bundle. Onward, down old stone stairs lies what most come to see: the Grotto of the Nativity.
Here, most Christians believe, is the original stable in where Jesus was born. This theory has recently, to much chagrin, been contested by Aviram Oshri, an Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist, who maintains that the Bethlehem mentioned in the Bible was actually another one, near Nazareth, in Israel. "First," grumbles the tour guide, "they take our freedom, then our livelihoods, and now they want to take the Baby Jesus, too."
The grotto, swathed in brocade is low, narrow, and shaped to represent Jesus on a crucifix. It's dimly lit, and an air of magic, mystery, and sanctity mingles with thick incense and a faint smell of musty curtains. "Oh, like, wow!" exclaims a white-sneakered, baseball-capped American woman, reaching for a digital camera.
"There," points their guide, in the spirit of 'X marks the spot,' "is the place where Jesus was actually born." The spot is marked neatly by a 14-point silver star set in the floor. The guide shakes his head sadly: "Once there was such a long queue to get in that we allowed each person only two minutes in here. Look at the star, touch the star, photograph the star, then move along.
"Now," he sighs glancing at his watch, "they can stay as long as they want."
The next stop, especially for those anxious for their own bundle of joy (preferably with a crib for a bed), is the Milk Grotto. In this cave, legend has it, Mary nursed the infant Jesus, and, when a drop of her milk spilled, the cave turned white.
The grotto's rock still gleams white – though, in full view, a work crew gives the ceilings a fresh lick of white paint. For centuries, women from across the world have visited the Milk Grotto to pray for fertility, even taking away chips of cave rock, to place under their mattresses. One local tour guide, father of six and with another unexpectedly on the way, grins: "Perhaps I've been here too often."
Any self-respecting Christmas tourist's agenda includes Shepherds' Fields, outside the town. The New Testament says this is where the shepherds were watching their flocks when they were visited by an "angel of the Lord" who told them, "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." Here, amid fragrant pines nailed with mystifying "No Eating" signs, there's a squat, modern church shaped like a shepherd's tent and an underground nativity scene complete with a surprised-looking stuffed sheep.
With Israeli settlements encroaching on the horizon along with the overspill from Bethlehem, it's hard to imagine those few solitary shepherds witnessing that moment of wonder all alone. But, with the tour group a good few steps behind, it's a tranquil spot to savor Bethlehem's enduring, endearing connection to the Christmas story – if not to savor that festive mince pie.
Back in Manger Square, a modest crowd forms for the annual lighting of the Christmas tree, performed (this past Friday) with as much pomp and ceremony as local officials can muster. Just behind the tree, a waiter at the Bar Casanova drapes Christmas lights around a window. Nearby, a postcard seller closes up shop.
A few years ago, Bethlehemites were looking forward to a tourist-filled new millennium. Now, tour guides, touts, and trinket-sellers would be happy with the coming of just a few wise men – preferably with space to fill in their Christmas stockings.