“Millions of the faithful gather in Manger Square to celebrate the birth of Christ,” scream the headlines. After all, if there’s one place in the world that you would want to spend Christmas Eve, wouldn’t it be in Bethlehem? No, not Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I mean the real Bethlehem. You know, the one where Christ is said to have been born? Sounds great, right? That’s what I was thinking when I planned to spend Christmas Eve there. I mean, after the magic of spending Hanukkah in Jerusalem, it was sure to be amazing, right? Sadly, though, I would be sorely disappointed in my experience…
Following the Star…
It started out as a happening afternoon, as I made my way through Israel‘s 8-meter (26 feet) high, prison-like security wall that separates portions of the Palestinian “West Bank” from the rest of Israel. After shunning the gaggle of taxi drivers offering to drive the roughly 20 minute walk to Manger Square, situated directly in front of the Church of the Nativity, I followed the throngs of people making their way towards the old city.
Up the Calle de Estrella (Street of the Star) the crowd went, only to be sidelined by a rather wonderful procession. Here was a parade of young people in uniforms that proudly bore the Palestinian flag, marching with instruments. They appeared to be the Palestinian equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scouts! The “Grand Marshal” of this procession? Why none other than Santa Claus himself, riding down the Street of the Star in a Jeep!
The procession ended right at everyone’s destination for the night…Manger Square. Ahead of me was the rather enormous Church of the Nativity, quite the place to be on this night with its famous Midnight Mass, which, as I knew, you needed a ticket to attend and those tickets would have had to have been obtained, oh, 6 months ago. But fear not, the mass was to be broadcast live in Manger Square for the all to see!
Church of the Nativity
Barricades surrounded the entrance to the church, but despite it being such an eventful night, you could in fact walk right in. As I approached the rather enormous-looking entrance way, it was hard to miss that the door got progressively smaller. In fact, it had been filled in so many times that you had to duck just to get in!
Honestly, the inside the church is pretty lackluster looking. After visiting the gorgeous Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (where Christ is said to have been crucified and buried), I was rather disappointed. But I was here to see the very place where he was born right? To my right, I noticed a large crowd of people and I figured that they must be waiting to get down to the Grotto.
The Grotto of the Nativity
It was a very long, disorganized wait to get to the Grotto, as people tried to shove their way to the front of the clump gathered by the top of the staircase. Palestinian soldiers carefully controlled the flow of people in and out.
I had been waiting 20 minutes or so when a soldier shouted, “This is the exit! Entrance is there!” He pointed across the room at an exceptionally long line of people that wrapped its way around the building. Nobody budged.
See, I may have been waiting at the exit (which I hadn’t realized till just now), but they were letting people in on my side. And they continued to periodically do so. At least until one of the soldiers asked an Indian fellow how many were in his party. “8” he replied. “No! This line is for small groups only! Large groups over there,” the soldier replied, pointing across the room. Then that suddenly turned into “All Indians in the other line, go!”
The rest of us wondered what would happen to us. But I had quietly mentioned to someone who looked like they were in charge that I was just 1 and as the soldiers started pushing people away, someone tugged on my sleeve and motioned me in…
The Grotto itself was nothing to write home about. I made a quick round. Saw the “spot” that everyone was trying to touch. And made my way out.
The Excitement Builds
Back on the Square, the excitement was building. It was now 5:30pm and the large stage that had been set up became the center of attention! After some speeches that I could not understand by a bunch of well-dressed people, singers took the stage singing tunes that sounded awfully familiar. Christmas Carols! The same Christmas Carols you hear played endlessly in stores back home, but sung in Arabic!
I had seen on CouchSurfing that there was a meetup planned for the night, so I joined in the group, which amounted to 5 of us. We were all hungry and left the confines of the lovely Christmas Carols for a delicious dinner of falafel and humus. Sure, it wasn’t the kind of Christmas Eve dinner one would expect at home, but you can’t argue that this wasn’t traditional…at least for this part of the world!
By the time we finished eating it was 6:45pm and that’s right about the time that a large thunderclap hit. And then, it started to rain. And by rain, I mean pour, and my night would not be the same again…
What would happen in the next 5 hours to make this night a true a travesty? Find out in Part II!
Do you have any interesting Christmas Eve stories? Let me know in the comments below!