Bethlehem at Christmas: Not What You Picture

What is being in Bethlehem at Christmas like today? Well, it’s not exactly how a Hallmark card makes it out to be, as one tour host put it.

A high point of a recent trip to the Holy Land for me was the opportunity to visit Bethlehem. But everything was not as I expected. Bethlehem today is far from the “O little town of Bethlehem” sung about in Christmas carols. Rather than a small, pastoral hamlet, Bethlehem is a bustling town of more than 35,000 people, a few miles outside of Jerusalem, with very congested, narrow, winding streets. To some, though, the hustle and bustle of Bethlehem at Christmas today perhaps could be reminiscent of the hustle at the time of the census when Jesus was born.

A modern-day shepherd carries a sheep near the city of Bethlehem.

Much has changed in the past century. Bethlehem now sits in Palestinian-occupied territory. The vast majority of its residents are not Christians, as one might expect, but Muslim Arabs. Once, as many as 4 out of 5 of the city’s residents were said to be believers, but today the opposite holds true — only about 1 in 5 are Christians, according to a 2020 Christianity Today article. In fact, sharing Manger Square is the Mosque of Omar, the oldest mosque in Bethlehem.

Still, one may encounter Christ-followers in Bethlehem, some of whom own stores or work as tour guides. However, the town is mostly Muslim, with minarets dotting the skyline and calls to prayer echoing in the streets below.

Hence, Bethlehem does not celebrate Christmas as one might imagine. A Christmas tree lighting does take place in Manger Square, and a mass is observed at the Basilica of the Nativity, which is shared by the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church. Some locals and many tourists or pilgrims gather there during Christmas to participate in songs and worship.

Tourists visit one of several caves surrounding the Shepherds’ Field
which may have provided some shelter.

The Basilica of the Nativity is the oldest church still in service, dating back more than 1,500 years. To enter it, one must bend down to go through an unimpressive wooden door that is only about four feet high. The door is appropriately called the “Door of Humility,” since one must bow to go through it. The church — in pre-COVID days — was often very difficult for tourists to visit, especially at Christmastime, and the wait to enter the small cave inside could be hours.

The original octagonal church was built around A.D. 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who believed it to be the site of Jesus’ birth. The first building was destroyed by Samaritans in A.D. 529, but Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church. About 80 years later, the Persians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed much of the city, but this church was spared because, according to legend, depictions of the Magi from the East were there.

A 14-point silver star marks the spot where the birth of Jesus was said to have occurred.

In a grotto inside the church is an ornate silver star on the floor, marking the spot where Jesus is said to have been born.

The 14-point star signifies the three groupings of 14 generations from Abraham to Christ’s birth. A few feet away is a possible location of the manger. One of the most moving experiences I had in Israel was hearing various nationalities of Christians singing carols in their native tongues before the manger.

Some individuals in Bethlehem do celebrate Christmas by decorating their homes, stringing lights, giving gifts, singing carols, and attending worship services. But everything, for the most part, is kept simple by American standards.

To make things even more confusing, Christians in Israel celebrate Christmas on three different days — Dec. 25, Jan. 7 and Jan. 19, according to the Jerusalem Post. Roman Catholics celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, according to the Gregorian calendar, the one Americans use. The Greek Orthodox Church also celebrates on Dec. 25 — but they use the Julian calendar, in which Dec. 25 falls on what is Jan. 7 on the Gregorian calendar. The Armenian Church, however, celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6 according to the Julian calendar, which is actually Jan. 19 on the Gregorian calendar. Confused yet?

Why was Dec. 25 chosen? Christmas was first celebrated on that date during the time of Constantine, after he converted to Christianity. Some say the date could have been chosen because of an association with the winter solstice and an ancient pagan midwinter festival — but that’s a whole other story.

Holy Land tourists frequently visit the Shepherds’ Field, a few miles outside the city of Bethlehem.

When tourists visit today, many go to the “Shepherds’ Field,” a hilly area only a couple of miles east of Bethlehem. For some reason, I pictured their walk to have been much farther, but it may have been a short, uphill jaunt. Several caves on the hillsides, which perhaps provided shelter from the elements for shepherds, are now places where visitors may worship. Many biblical scholars believe that the stables weren’t wooden stalls, but caves. So, the nativity scenes of today, though picturesque, probably aren’t realistic.

The manger might have been a stone feeding trough, hollowed out to hold animal feed, and swaddling clothes could refer to just strips of cloth. A perfect lamb was valuable because they were needed for sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. Lambs had to be without blemish, so shepherds took special care of them — even wrapping newborns in swaddling cloths to keep them safe and warm. Don’t miss the wondrous significance of the angels telling the shepherds that they would find the Messiah wrapped in swaddling cloths — like a baby lamb — and lying in a manger.

A nativity scene is one of the murals adorning the Chapel of Angels near the Shepherds’ Field.

On a hillside nearby today stands the Chapel of Angels to commemorate the heavenly hosts who sang “Allelujah.” Inside, beautiful murals on the walls and ceiling depict this incredible event. Written high above one’s head in the cupola are the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Many groups enjoy singing “Angels We Have Heard on High” there, and the amazing acoustics make their voices reverberate off the walls.

Yes, things are very different in Bethlehem today from that first silent night. Even though it may not be the “Hallmark moment” that one pictures, what remains is the unchanging message of “Immanuel, God with us.” Through faith, Christ-followers still are able to return to the little town of Bethlehem, where they rejoice in their hearts with carolers through the ages: “Yet in the dark street shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

After all, it’s not so much about a dreamy village of a long-ago time as it is about a miraculous birth that happened there that still touches souls for all eternity.