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Christmas in the Holy Land: Family and Community

A Palestinian vendor selling corn pushes a cart through Bethlehem’s Manger Square on 16 December. The square with the Church of the Nativity, seen in back, is the hub of activity for Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. (photo: CNS/Ammar Awad, Reuters) 

While pilgrims congregate on Manger Square, most local Bethlehem Catholic families have their holiday meal at home. They attend an early Mass on Christmas Eve at their local parish, where there is a solemn procession with a statue of the infant Jesus.

At St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, churchgoers participate in a tradition reaching back at least to the 18th century. A nearly life-size statue of the newborn Christ, normally kept at the side altar of Our Lady Mary, is placed in front of the main altar a few days prior to Christmas, said the Bethlehem parish priest, Father Marwan Di’des.

“At the end of Mass, in a nice procession the Latin patriarch takes the statue and places it in the grotto,” at the Church of the Nativity, said Father Di’des, who as Bethlehem parish priest will be conducting a midnight Mass in the grotto for 60 parishioners who obtained tickets on a first-come basis. “This is important not only for the people there but also for everyone watching via the mass media. For me it is a privilege to be able to say Mass in the grotto.”

To prepare for the moment, he said, he leaves all his other duties half an hour before the Mass and goes to the sacristy to prepare spiritually.

“I feel as if ... Jesus Christ is really born at that moment in the grotto. It is very calm. I can feel the holiness of our Lord. The opportunity to say Mass in the grotto is a piece of heaven left for us on earth by our Jesus Christ,” he said.

The infant Jesus statue remains in the grotto from midnight until 2 a.m., when it is returned to Our Lady Mary altar.

“We pray in the grotto and read the Nativity story from the Gospel. The real feast is in the grotto, but we can’t say Mass there for everybody,” he said.

The traditional, more-crowded midnight Mass televised around the world is celebrated at St. Catherine Church.

In the Melkite Catholic village of Mi’ilyah in Galilee, decorating the village entrance is an opportunity for young people to socialize and have fun. However, this year, the festivities will be subdued in memory of a village resident who was murdered recently in the seaport town of Eilat, said Latifa Assaf, 33, of Mi’ilyah. As is the custom in Arab society, families who have lost loved ones during the last year do not have festive celebrations for the holiday, even though they still participate in the religious ceremonies.

The two days following Christmas are spent visiting family and friends across Israel and the West Bank. In Mi’ilyah, the male members of families go together in the early morning to pay condolence calls to families who have lost loved ones during the year. In the West Bank, brothers traditionally visit their sisters, bringing them small gifts and sweets.

“This visit makes me feel very happy, because not only my brother comes to visit me but my whole family comes. It makes me feel special,” Ms. Andonia said. “Even if we are a minority here we have to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. The Christmas spirit in Bethlehem is one of joy and happiness, and hope with Jesus.”

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Tags: Holy Land Cultural Identity Unity Bethlehem West Bank