Festive Bethlehem

Bethlehem has the feel of a cosmopolitan city more than some other cities under PA jurisdiction.

Archeology on display next to a Santa balloon in Bethlehem (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Archeology on display next to a Santa balloon in Bethlehem
(photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Teenagers in Santa Claus suits and face paint danced to traditional Arab music next to a giant Christmas tree in Manger Square on Sunday at the 17th annual Christmas market. Stalls were set up in the square by local merchants and from 15 countries. Family snapped photos in the sunshine at the unseasonably warm December event, timed earlier than the actual holiday to take into account school and vacation schedules. Across from the square, the Bethlehem Peace Center held children’s arts and crafts activities.
The local chapter of the Lions Club was on hand, as was a scout troop. Muslim women in head-scarves mingled next to tourists from Africa, the Americas and Europe, who had come for the holiday season.
Fadi Ghattas, press officer at Bethlehem Municipality told In Jerusalem that more than 2,000 people attended the event. He was proud of both the locals and the internationals who came from Hungary, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia, Lebanon, Poland and other locales.
A large stage was the main attraction and Ghattas explained that the municipality sought to showcase both local and international performers. A local children’s duo wowed the crowd as did a flamenco guitarist and singer who came from Spain to perform. A musician playing traditional songs, with accompanying darbouka and other Middle Eastern instruments, got the crowd moving as youths in clown wigs and Santa suits danced and clapped their hands. The performer also sang a version of “Jingle Bells” in Arabic. In between performances, timeless American classics that included Frank Sinatra holiday favorites floated through the air.
Tour guides and taxi drivers kept a sharp eye out for the many tourists and offered rides to such local sites as the Milk Grotto, Shepherds’ Field and the Mount Herodian archeological site.
Tourists also visited the many historic sites such as the nearby Church of the Nativity which dates back to the fourth century and is currently undergoing renovation. Ghattas said the massive rehabilitation project would take several years. On the opposite side of the square stands the towering Mosque of Omar, built in 1860, from which the muezzin could be heard, juxtaposed to the city’s church bells that rang later in the day. Palestinian Authority flags fluttered in the breeze atop vintage architecture where plaques indicated both historical information and a variety of rehabilitation projects sponsored by foreign governments and NGOs. This year, a Maltese crib, an elaborate holiday- themed diorama traditional in the Republic of Malta, was on display. The crib was displayed last year in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
Bethlehem has the feel of a cosmopolitan city more than some other cities under PA jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, like Jerusalem, elements of both religious and secular life mingle and contrasts are accepted as the norm. For example, a store advertising tequila and a liqueur called Amigos is a short walk from the Consulate of El Salvador. Many coffee shops and restaurants can be found, and ads for American movies such as Despicable Me 3 can be found on the same street as a poster of the late PA chairman and PLO founder Yasser Arafat. American-style Christmas decorations, such as stars and trees, hang near more religiously oriented displays. A flyer for a Palestinian hip-hop concert hangs near the outlet of the Jawwal cell-phone provider, which services more than 2.85 million subscribers.
A short walk from the corner of King David and Star streets is an office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which offers loans and micro-financing.
A franchise of the American fast-food restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken is not far from a building marked with the yellow flags of the Fatah movement.
But the festive atmosphere of the Christmas festival seemed to bring a smile to everyone’s face, regardless of background or politics.