In tourist-free Bethlehem, a tranquil Christmas focused on family
Why We Wrote This
For the residents of Bethlehem, as for people around the world, the pandemic’s extreme hardships – amplified in a tourist economy – have been a test of resilience. Yet this Christmas, there is still something to cherish.
Serene Qoumsiye lights a candle at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Dec. 20, 2020.
December 23, 2020
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By Fatima Abdulkarim
The impact on Bethlehem from the loss of tourism and the Christmastime pilgrimage is hard to overstate: 28,000 of the 35,000 West Bank Palestinians working in tourism who lost their jobs due to the pandemic are from Bethlehem district, and 99% of tourism-related businesses in the area have closed, officials say.
But a tourism-free Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus is bringing something else in its place: Rather than a time of work, hustle, and packed streets, there’s a tranquil focus on family.
“We want to celebrate. We want to end this year with some joy in our hearts,” says Amal Yousef, selling homemade Christmas cookies to the few dozen masked visitors milling about the market.
Mary Giacaman has gone through her share of hardships this year, seeing her family’s souvenir shop in Manger Square shut down for an entire year due to the pandemic, and then contracting COVID-19 herself in October.
She says she is determined to have a special Christmas Day lunch with her family, give generously to charity, and end the year on a high note. “This was a loss and also a lesson that not everything is about work and money,” she says. “Christmas reminds us what really matters.”
BETHLEHEM, West Bank
No tourists, no pilgrims, no large gatherings, and plenty of vacant rooms to be had, Christmas in Bethlehem this year is unlike any seen in decades.
In nearly empty Manger Square, normally bustling with visitors and pilgrims, it is easy to feel the pandemic’s impact on a city for which 50% of the economy relies on tourism – the vast bulk of it in the weeks leading up to Christmas and on the day itself.
But a tourism-free Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus this year is bringing something else in its place for residents: a tranquil focus on social bonds – a soothing balm amid a difficult holiday season and after an even tougher year.
Rather than a time of work, hustle, and packed streets, Bethlehem residents say this Christmas season is being marked by togetherness, time spent with family, and the revival of festive traditions from simpler yesteryears.
“I think that the best thing that has come out of this year is that we got to spend time with our families,” says Balqis Qoumsieh, who lost her job as a sales manager at a souvenir shop and now sells handmade resin jewelry and accessories from her home.
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“I don’t see my family much this time of year because of work, but this time I’m celebrating with my family at home.”
At a scaled-back, one-day Christmas market in Bethlehem on Sunday, that was a widely held sentiment among Palestinian Christians.
“We want to celebrate. We want to end this year with some joy in our hearts,” says Amal Yousef at her stand, where she was selling homemade Christmas cookies made with dried fruits, chocolates, and even beer to the few dozen masked Palestinian visitors milling about the market.
Mary Giacaman, a mother of four, has gone through her share of hardships this year, seeing her family’s souvenir shop in Manger Square shut down for an entire year due to the pandemic, and then contracting COVID-19 herself in October.
She says she is determined to have a special Christmas Day lunch with her family to end the year on a high note.
“This was a loss and also a lesson that not everything is about work and money, and now we feel the value of togetherness and being with family,” she says.
The impact on Bethlehem from the loss of tourism and the Christmastime pilgrimage is hard to overstate: 28,000 of the 35,000 West Bank Palestinians working in tourism who lost their jobs due to the pandemic are from Bethlehem district, and 99% of tourism-related businesses in the area have closed, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Antiquities.
The 2019 Christmas season in Bethlehem saw 1.5 million hotel reservations, compared with zero this year, the Bethlehem Municipality says.
Mary Giacaman, who has overcome both her family’s souvenir store closing down and her own bout with COVID-19, visits the Christmas market in Manger Square in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 20, 2020.
With so many families affected, Palestinians are cutting their budgets and planning more modest celebrations, prioritizing essentials such as food, electricity, water, and rent.
Two staples of the Palestinian Christmas shopping season being trimmed back this year are home furnishings and new outfits for the family to wear Christmas Day.
Like many Palestinians, Ms. Giacaman is putting her scaled-down holiday budget toward charity.
“It made me feel good at heart, because I now know what it is like to fall ill, to lose work, to be in isolation,” she says. “Christmas reminds us what really matters.”
In the Church of the Nativity, which holds the grotto believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, Serene Qoumsiye lights a candle to complete a pilgrimage she makes each year from nearby Beit Sahour on the last Sunday before Christmas.
She says this year’s muted holiday season makes it a perfect moment for reflection after a year of uncertainty.
“I want this year to end with some peace,” she says.
Old traditions reemerge
Many of the larger, more modern Christmas events and traditions in the Holy Land have been altered by the coronavirus.
The Christmas tree lighting in Manger Square, which kicks off the holiday season at the beginning of the month, was held via Facebook livestream rather than in front of a live audience. Weekend holiday markets were pushed to a single weekday.
Then there is the procession.
Each Christmas Eve, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem holds a procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, in more recent years passing through the separation wall checkpoint. At the entrance to Bethlehem he is met by a procession of scouts – Palestinian boys and girls in full regalia playing bagpipes and drums – who accompany him through the town to the Church of the Nativity.
This year’s procession is in doubt due to a ban on public gatherings and crowds.
Jonathan Faqouseh sells natural soaps at the Christmas market in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 20, 2020.
And, rather than bringing the extended family of cousins, second cousins, uncles, and distant great aunts together at the family diwan, or gathering hall, Palestinian Christians are marking the holidays with their nuclear families only.
Which puts an even greater focus on the food.
Celebrating with “humility”
On Christmas Eve, most Christians, such as Olga Nasrallah, a Gazan now living in Jerusalem, will gather for a traditional mezze spread of finger foods and salads such as tabbouleh, meat-stuffed cracked-wheat kibbeh balls, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and drinks.
Families say they will then sit together and celebrate midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity on national television as they do every year, but for different reasons. In the past, throngs of dignitaries, clergy, tourists, and pilgrims made it difficult for locals to attend. This year it’s the curfews and bans on large gatherings.
Then, on Christmas Day, families are holding a large lunch, with each family following their own tradition.
Some, such as Alice Dueibes, a grandmother from the small Christian town of Zababdeh, serve a rice-stuffed roasted chicken, to celebrate “with a little humility,” while others will serve stuffed turkey or even lamb.
“This year we might not be happy, but we should look for the joy and live it,” Ms. Dueibes says. “We are keeping the tradition, but we are also living the changes, and what matters this holiday is that the children see the good and the joy.”
For her, this joy means preparing her signature wheat cookies stuffed with anise and dates and giving away chocolates to visiting children.
Many Palestinians are finding joy this year in baking at home, preparing the traditional Christmas sweet ghraybeh, the Levantine version of shortbread cookies – crumbly, buttery, and often decorated with a pistachio on the top.
Wissal Kheir, browsing the Bethlehem market, says that while the lack of pomp and celebrations has taken away some of the joy this holiday season, “we are still going to carry on our traditions.”
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“We don’t know if there will be scouts or if there will be a lockdown or a curfew, but we will be with our sons, daughters, and close family members,” says Ms. Kheir.
“We might not be able to wear new clothes this year, but we can still gather around a meal.”