Bethlehem, a city synonymous with Christmas joy and festivities, stands in stark contrast this year. There is a noticeable absence in Manger Square, which usually signifies the holiday spirit. The 2020 celebrations have been canceled, leaving the city devoid of its usual happiness and vibrancy. “The city is empty from happiness, from joy, from kids, from Santa. There is no celebration this year,” laments Madeleine, a Bethlehem resident. This article explores the somber mood in Bethlehem, a city grappling with the realities of conflict and loss during a season traditionally filled with joy.
The Dimmed Festive Spirit
Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the heart of Christmas celebrations, is noticeably subdued. The absence of the famous Christmas tree and the lack of carols or Christmas market stands are poignant reminders of the changed atmosphere. In place of festive decorations, a nativity scene reflecting the harsh realities faced by children in conflict zones, particularly in Gaza, has been installed. This symbolic representation serves as a tribute and captures the character of a grieving community. The Nativity Church, usually a beacon of joy and celebration, mirrors the city’s somber mood. Father Eissa Thaldjiya, a priest at the church, expresses his dismay: “I’ve been a priest in this church for 12 years. I was born in Bethlehem, and I’ve never seen it like this—even during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. His words paint a picture of a city that feels like a shadow of its festive self, weighed down by the events in Gaza and the broader region.
The personal impact of the regional conflict is heartbreakingly evident in the stories of Bethlehem’s residents. Jawdat Mikhael, a local whose family is trapped in Northern Gaza, shares his distressing experiences. Communication with his family, sheltering in the Holy Family Church in Gaza, is sporadic and fraught with worry. His father, Han’na Mikhael, manages to convey the dire situation over a crackly phone line: “It’s total destruction, he reports, describing the devastation surrounding the church and the scarcity of necessities like food and water. Tragic events and resiliency are hallmarks of Jawdat’s family’s story. A week prior, his grandmother and aunt, seeking shelter in the church, were fatally shot, a devastating blow to the family. The IDF says it will continue its investigation into these deaths. Through tears, Han’na recounts the shock and horror of losing loved ones right before his eyes. This personal tragedy amidst the wider conflict brings into sharp focus the human cost of enduring violence.
Reflections in a Time of Turmoil
In the midst of grief, the community of Bethlehem shows a sense of unity and resilience. The somber atmosphere is interspersed with moments of solidarity as locals gather around the symbolic nativity scene, with church bells ringing and Arabic songs calling for peace. The display of the Palestinian flag by dozens of people in Manger Square signifies a community standing together in the face of adversity. The presence of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, underscores the gravity of the situation. His words resonate with the community’s sentiments: “We are in a war, a terrible war. Our thoughts go first and foremost to Gaza, to our people in Gaza… Two million are suffering,” he says, emphasizing the need for more than just a ceasefire but a stop to hostilities to break the cycle of violence.
In 2020, Bethlehem’s Christmas, typically a time of joy and celebration, is markedly different. The city, usually bustling with festive energy, now echoes the somber reality of a community deeply affected by regional conflict and loss. The absence of traditional celebrations casts a shadow, yet it also highlights the enduring spirit of the city’s residents. Their resilience, unity, and longing for peace are evident even amidst these challenging circumstances. The personal stories emerging from Bethlehem during this unusual Christmas season serve as a poignant reminder of the remarkable human capacity to persevere, maintain hope, and find solidarity, even in the darkest and most difficult of times.