Almost in error the driver of the No. 231 bus, which plies the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, tunes into a station playing Christmas music. The happy tune of the 1857 classic “Jingle Bells” rings out. Then it is gone, back to a station with Arabic-language commentary.
Earlier that day, on the ride out to Bethlehem, it had been koranic verses.
The 15 seconds of Christmas music was emblematic of a day in Bethlehem on the eve of the holiday. Tourism to Bethlehem peaked in 2013 with almost 2 million visits. In 2015, however, the number of Christian tourists, according to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, was 1.84 million. The number of pilgrims making their way to Bethlehem for the holiday has declined from a record 117,000 in 2012 to fewer than half that in 2014, and numbers seem to be worse this year. The PA Tourism Ministry told reporters in 2015 that only 7,000 would stay in hotels over the holiday in the city known as the birthplace of Jesus. This year the numbers may be less.
At the bus station near Damascus Gate potential Christian tourists were confused as to which bus to get on. The main bus to Bethlehem is the 231, but the sign by the stop reads “21” and “Beit Jala.” Beit Jala is a Christian town that is a suburb of Bethlehem.
Rather than drive through the checkpoint on Hebron Road, buses drive through the tunnels that are used by commuters going to Gush Etzion and then circle back to Bethlehem via Beit Jala, circumnavigating the security barrier Israel constructed more than a decade ago.
If you’re a tourist it’s a bit confusing. Around 70% of the passengers on our bus there and back were Muslim women, it seemed. A few Palestinian men, Italian visitors and Coptic women rounded out the rest.
Walking to Manger Square, where thousands will gather on Christmas Eve, there is little sign of the holiday.
A poster commemorates the Hamas bomber of a bus in April adorns one shop and another poster commemorates a Palestinian woman from Fatah who carried out an attack years ago. The Lutheran Church is as sleepy as the avenues around it. At the Syrian Orthodox Church a man opens up the nave to show a Bible written in Aramaic.
There is a print commemorating the massacres of Christians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, during the First World War. Not only Armenians were murdered, the man says, showing scenes of soldiers hacking to death Syrian Orthodox priests. For these Christians, Christmas falls on January 6, as it does for the Coptic and Armenian Churches.
Down in Manger Square a Czech tourist wearing a red fur hat with devil’s horns seeks to buy tea from an Arab man carting around a portable samovar. There were more tour guides offering their services than tourists. At the Church of the Nativity a restoration of the Orthodox section of the church has scaffolding encompassing the inside of the church. The Palestinian Authority has put up a sign showing off its support for it.
Pilgrims have written their names and details on the wooden scaffolds. “Natalia, Thailand” and “Christian Ateeq” and many others.
The placement of a small silver star in the Church of the Nativity in 1853 helped lead to the Crimean War; these days it seems such controversies have declined a bit.
The conspicuous absence of pilgrims and tourists is evident in the church.
There is an Orthodox tour from Russia, and a few scattered Catholics are present.
A confessional advertising “French, Arabic and English” confessions stands next to the door, empty. Two female tourists poke at the screen where a priest would normally hear the faithful.
Palestinian police wandered around. On December 25 hundreds will crowd into the Catholic section to hear the midnight mass. Tickets to attend are sold out.
At the Tent restaurant near Shepherd’s Fields in Beit Sahur the mood is move lively. A tour of 50 men and women from Hong Kong and Macau reads the Lord’s Prayer and eats a sumptuous meal. “We hope the tourists and pilgrims will come," says a waiter.