On Saturday evening the Christmas lights were lit in Bethlehem in a small ceremony which was streamed worldwide. Despite the challenges of this year, there is still something magical about spending Christmas so close to where the action happened 2020 years ago.
Bethlehem is only 10km away from Jerusalem although, as if often the case here, the distance travelled feels much greater. Bethlehem sits within the Palestinian West Bank and that means that you have to cross a checkpoint to get there. You also have to pass through the Separation Wall which effectively makes an open-air prison of the West Bank.
I have been a regular visitor over the year and Bethlehem is a charming and unassuming place. Those seeking a dusty, rural village as depicted on their Christmas cards may be disappointed by the juice vendors, the traffic and the general hubbub that reverberates around this iconic town.
The Church of the Nativity which marks the birthplace of Christ provides a serene backdrop to the town, but it doesn’t dominate. People buzz around their normal lives and it feels like a ‘lived in’ place rather than a showcase attraction. I think this gives it a modesty which is endearing.
Bethlehem normally attracts around two million visitors a year and COVID has hit the local economy hard. Tourists are still not permitted entry into Israel (which is necessary to reach the Palestinian West Bank) and that is unlikely to change anytime soon given the continued rapid spread of the virus throughout the West Bank.
I visited Bethlehem last Thursday, which happened to coincide with the mayor giving a press conference to launch Bethlehem’s Christmas. In Manger Square the Christmas tree was up and people buzzed around constructing a stage as several journalists filmed pieces to camera.
Trying to avoid tripping over sound cables, we headed along Milk Grotto Street in search of an open olive wood shop. Many of the shops had their shutters down. Towards the end of the street we came to Christmas House which had its door slightly ajar. Inside the owner and several others were packing up boxes for export. ‘The van will be here soon and the flight leaves in three hours’ he said. These beautiful handmade olive wood Christmas decorations were destined to take up pride of place in homes across Europe and the US.
I offered up a few words in Arabic to explain that my friend and I lived in Jerusalem. This also worked well as a signal that we would expect to pay a reasonable price much less than the inflated tourist rates but understandably more than the local rate.
I chose an olive wood nativity scene, which is quite possibly my best purchase this year, and I know I will enjoy for many Christmases to come. Worryingly, the kids were so enamoured with it that the Mary already has a crack on it through overly boisterous re-enactments. I am offsetting that disappointment however, with the fact that the shopkeeper gave me two baby Jesus’ and it is quite sweet to see the little twins in the crib together.
Moving on, the next stop was to a lovely embroidery shop I had chanced upon previously which houses the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union. Tucked away on a side street close to Manger Square, it is best described as a social enterprise. The organisation pays around 100 Palestinian women from surrounding villages a decent wage for embroidering goods at home which are then sold through the shop. As well as creating flexible employment opportunities it also helps to keep the ancient art of Palestinian embroidery (‘tatreez’) alive.
The old lady that was sitting behind the small desk was slightly startled when we walked in. She had a warm smile and was patient in explaining the different items to us. She said she had been born about 500 metres away and I would not be surprised if she had worked in the shop since it was established in 1968. The quality of the craftwork was self-evident and the designs were both beautiful and intricate. I left happy with an embroidered table runners and some small decorations.
Wherever you live in the world, perhaps a small silver lining of COVID is the chance to shop more locally and support local businesses instead of reverting to the mass consumerism that can sometimes drown Christmas.
Bethlehem is currently in lockdown on Friday and Saturdays and many shops close on a Sunday so a mid-week visit is best. The Arab Women’s Union also sells products in Sunbula in East Jerusalem.