Backstory: The manger gets farther away

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

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

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."

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."

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.

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