The town of Bethlehem is not what you might imagine, at least it isn’t what I had imagined when I visited there while living the expat life in Ramallah, Palestine–before Anno Covid. Here’s what happened:
Let’s do the tourist thing
Off we go for a visit to Bethlehem. I mean, how can you not when you live in Palestine? But I should have known better than to expect a quiet, peaceful little town straight out of Biblical times.
Since the political situation is relatively calm, the tourists flock to Bethlehem by the busload from all over the world. Manger Square, in the middle of town in front of the Church of the Nativity, is packed with buses and cars and tourists with cameras ready to swarm the church. (Clearly this is not 2020).
The church was built over the cave, or grotto, that is considered the place where Jesus was born. We join the throng of humanity into the dark church and pass by the grotto illuminated by candles.
People kneel, people cry, people take pictures. It’s all rather emotional and dramatic and all this religious fervor is a bit much for sober Dutch me, lapsed Protestant and all. Also I do not like crowds of any kind and I admit I wanna get out of there fast.
Biblical Bethlehem, still?
We wander the streets of the town which have names like Shepherd’s Street, Star Street, Manger Street. There’s a Milk Grotto Street with a Milk Grotto shrine, the place where according to legend the Virgin Mary spilled milk while nursing baby Jesus. (Consuming scrapings from the stones are believed to increase the quantity of a mother’s milk.) What can I say? It’s all super cute. Or not so much.
We find our car, but driving in this ancient town is a challenge. The old town is a warren of narrow streets winding up and down and around without much visibility.
We should have taken a donkey
We end up going the wrong way on one of them and getting stuck at a school where parents are picking up their children. Cars everywhere, and ours is pointing in the wrong direction with no place to turn around. Slowly, very slowly my man backs out hoping no one will run into the back of the car from around a blind corner. It’s hair raising.
No Biblical scene here
While my man maneuvers the car to safety, I watch the bright-eyed little Muslim girls wearing uniforms and scarves, carrying backpacks, hugging their mothers and fathers, skipping hand in hand to their cars. Except for the clothes and the architecture, we could be in suburban America.
More tourist stuff
We need some gifts to take home to the US and Holland. So we stop to visit a friend who owns a tourist souvenir shop here in Bethlehem. Ali is happy to see us, makes us coffee and tells us about some American tourists who came in the day before. Nice Christians from Florida who bought a large, beautiful crèche carved from olive wood – Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, the three wise men and the animals.
It wasn’t very busy in the shop, so Ali talked to them for a while and the question of religion came up, not surprisingly, considering this is Bethlehem.
Religion in Palestine, it’s all so confusing!
Ali happens to be Christian, which apparently was somewhat of a puzzle to the people from Florida. Palestinians are Muslims, aren’t they?
“How did you become a Christian?” they asked. “How did that happen?”
“About two thousand years ago,” said Ali. “Right here, in this town.”
MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HOLIDAYS, HEALTH AND PEACE TO ALL
NOTE: The Christmas tree is known as a symbol of the Christian holiday it is named after, but in actual fact has its origins in pagan customs. Ours is a fascinating world, don’t you agree?
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