“So Joseph [and Mary] also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem […] While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. (Luke 2:4-6)
Celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, is a magical, once in a lifetime experience for many people. The fact that most Christmas events occur on Manger Square, just couple of meters from the Nativity Grotto – the place of Christ’s birth, makes it even more unique.
On the 24th of December, people gathered on the beautifully decorated Manger Square, in front of the ancient Basilica of the Nativity, to welcome the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal.
The parade of hundreds of scouts, presenting their musical skills, followed Star Street, believed to be the way Mary and Joseph took arrived to the Nativity Grotto. In June 2012, this street was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites together with the Nativity Church.
In the early afternoon, the Patriarch arrived to walk on the specially prepared podium, lined with a red carpet and decorated with flowers. He was welcomed by the new Mayor of Bethlehem, Mrs. Vera Baboun, the representatives of different churches in the region, and many other important personalities. This year, His Eminence, instead of walking straight to the Nativity Church, stopped in the middle of the podium and greeted the people, prompting cheerful ovations among them.
Project Peace on Earth
The day continued with a special message of peace, unity and love coordinated by the Project Peace on Earth. With help of their instructions, children and scouts gathered on Manger Square formed a ‘peace sign’ and words ‘love all’. This powerful message went viral extremely fast.
Christmas Eve Mass in the Nativity Church
The solemn Christmas Eve Mass is always celebrated at midnight between the 24th and 25th of December, which according to the Christian tradition symbolizes the day of the Christ’s birth.
The Midnight Mass, lead by the Patriarch Fouad Twal and held inside the Franciscan church of St. Catherine, within the Nativity Church complex, required special passes, obtained by advance application in the Christian Information Center in Jerusalem. Those lucky enough to securee tickets had the opportunity to experience this unique church ceremony, preceded by the scripture reading and common carols singing.
Many important officials were invited to attend the service, along with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
The mass was celebrated in many languages, as gathered believers were from all around the world. Nevertheless the main liturgical language was Latin, the official tongue of the Catholic Church. Patriarch’s homily was delivered in Arabic – his mother tongue, and papers with its translation were provided for all.
The Patriarch began his speech with these words: ‘I greet you all from the Basilica of the Nativity, a few steps away from the grotto where the Blessed Virgin brought forth her admirable Son into the world.’ He also called for peace and the stability in the region saying: ‘Only justice and peace in the Holy Land can re-establish balance and stability in the region and in the world!’
Solemn procession to the Nativity Grotto, lead by the Patriarch holding a sculpture of a baby symbolizing Christ, concluded the liturgy.
Planning Christmas in Bethlehem: next year … or?
Have you ever heard that the Christmas in the Holy Land is celebrated three times? It is because of the different liturgical calendars followed by the different Christian denominations of the Holy Land. Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December, the Orthodox and Oriental Churches on the 7th of January and the Holy Land Armenians on the 18th of January. As a result this special holiday season is celebrated for an extended period of time.
Attend the Christmas Eve Celebrations of Orthodox (6/01) and Armenian Churches (18/01) in Bethlehem, which will also feature scouts parades and midnight masses, which do not require any tickets.
Christmas period and especially days between 23rd and 26th of December mark a very high touristic season in Bethlehem. Thus, if you are planning to visit the town next year during that time, think about early accommodation booking.
Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.
*For more information about booking an individual or group pilgrimage or tour to the Holy Land please contact us.