A not so merry Christmas this year in Bethlehem

It’s Christmas time in Palestine and all eyes are on Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.  

The city’s Christmas trees are up and the streets of Bethlehem are covered in festive lights and decorations. To the ordinary person, things in Manger Square might seem normal, like any other Christmas.

People are trickling in and out of the Nativity Church, while others have come to take photos in front of Bethlehem’s Christmas tree. But despite the festive atmosphere,  Palestinians in Bethlehem know that this year their Christmas is going to be anything but normal.

“Christmas this year is really difficult for everyone. Everyone was waiting for Christmas, the birthday of Christ, and the lovely holiday atmosphere. But this year was really hard on everyone, on all the countries of the world,” Vera Abu Saada, a local Bethlehem resident, told Mondoweiss. 

“The churches are closed, social life has come to a stop, there are no gatherings, there are even no family relations anymore. I can’t even visit my sister or visit my brother because of the coronavirus. So, this year’s Christmas is really hard for us,” Abu Saada said. 

In recent weeks coronavirus cases have surged in the occupied West Bank  with the Bethlehem district seeing some of the highest rates of infection. 

Hospitals are quickly reaching full capacity in many districts, forcing the government to announce its strictest set of lockdowns since the pandemic first hit Palestine in early March. 

Due to the latest round of coronavirus lockdowns Bethlehem is as quiet as ever. The streets are relatively empty, shops are closed, and Palestinian families are once again couped up in their homes, forced to make major changes not only to their daily lives, but to their yearly Christmas celebrations as well. 

“In reality, we are not going to do anything,” Abu Saada told Mondoweiss. “We are going to celebrate as a family, as a husband and wife and immediate family. I will prepare a meal and we will sit together.”

“But the big celebration, where we invite people every year, and stay up until the morning and things like that, no we won’t have that this year,” she said, a sadness spreading over her face. 

“I have an elderly person in the house, and it’s dangerous for her because we don’t know who could be carrying the virus.”

Even the simplest things, like prayers inside church, Vera said, are out of reach for Palestinian Christian families this year.  

“Even prayers have to be done inside the house. I know people who have created small altars in their homes just so they can pray and feel the [Christmas] spirit,” she said. “Of course we are going to be sad, and this year is going to be different. Everything about it is different than every year before it.”

For Palestinian families, one of the hardest realities they’ve had to face this year is the loss of timeless, quintessential, Bethlehem Christmas traditions. Like midnight mass at the Church of Nativity, and the lighting of the city’s Christmas tree, an occasion that typically draws thousands of people from all over the world. 

This year, the ceremony was held virtually, and people were forced to watch the celebrations from afar.

“It’s a really bad feeling,” Vera’s husband Johnny told Mondoweiss. “We used to go every year to midnight mass, and we could barely move [because of the crowds]. We would go to pray, and there was a Christmas spirit. Bethlehem is depressing now. There’s no one, nowhere to go, nothing to do,” he said. 

Vera told Mondoweiss that the current “situation makes you want to cry.”

“Someone, for example, waits for this month all year. Yes, we go to the church on Sundays and pray, but this month is extra special,” she said. “When you can’t go to the church and pray, or even feel like you have a social life this month, you feel terrible about it. It’s really sad.”

Despite the major changes to the holiday season this year  families like the Abu Saada’s are doing everything they can to get in the spirit, like giving to charity and praying for an end to the pandemic. 

“We are not going to just erase Christmas, the holiday, or the tree. We know that Christmas, the birth of Christ, is not about a tree or decorations. It is about prayer, and feeling the prayer and blessings of this season. But we will just try to find a way to feel this spirit,” she said. 

From Bethlehem Palestine to the rest of the world, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all those celebrating. 

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