Christmas comes three times a year in Bethlehem
The birth of Jesus is celebrated three times a year in Bethlehem, in accordance with the calendars of the three different churches followed by local Christians.
While the churches that follow the western timetable -Catholics and Protestants - celebrate on 25 December, the Eastern Orthodox churches remembers the birth of Christ two weeks later, on 7 January.
On the other hand, the Armenian church - which is one of three co administrators of the Church of Nativity - wait until 19 January to hold Christmas mass.
Each Christmas celebration is led by the respective church patriarch, along with a team of supporting religious and temporal leaders. All celebrate Christmas with a recurring set of events that have occurred by-and-large the same way for hundreds of years.
These arrangements are often referred to as "the status quo", and they include understandings between the different churches as well as with the local leadership.
Bandak said that on the three different Christmas eves the very same protocol is followed to the letter.
"The head of the particular church along with his priests and entourage come by car from Jerusalem and are greeted at the Mar Elias monastery at the edge of Bethlehem by the mayor of Beit Jala," he said.
The entourage then moves to Rachel's Tomb where they are met by the mayor of Beit Sahour - the traditional "Shepherd's Field" where the Bible mentions angels appearing to shepherds at night when Jesus was born in a Bethlehem cave.
|We need mercy to renew ourselves and overwhelm the world with serenity and peace and thus become life makers.
- Vera Baboun, Mayor of Bethlehem
The patriarch and his group then move to the old city of Bethlehem where they are preceded by boy and girl scouts from all over Palestine. The entourage snakes through Start Street - now a UNESCO world heritage site - and arrive at the Nativity Square, usually around 2pm on Christmas Eve.
Bandak says that according to the status quo agreement, the mayor of Bethlehem along with the governor, the chief of police, and the chief of the army, greet the church leader as they make their entry into the Church of Nativity.
Midnight mass takes place in three different chapels within the large Church quarters. Bandak says that the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the current President Mahmoud Abbas insist to attend midnight mass in Bethlehem.
The Catholics celebrate mass 24 December at St. Catherine's Church alongside the main church which is controlled by the Orthodox place of worship.
The Greek Orthodox hold their Christmas mass two weeks later in the main church that Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, built in the fourth century. The Armenians have their own chapel where they hold mass on 18 January.
In addition to the pomp and ceremony connected with the official celebrations, a number of side events - including tree lighting ceremonies, Christmas concerts, bazaars, parades, choirs, receptions, plays and dances - take place throughout the city.
Christmas celebrations begin with the tree lighting ceremonies at Nativity Square. As is usual the Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun delivered the message during the annual ceremony to light the town's famous Christmas tree on 3 December, titling her speech "Mercy is the Spirit of Christmas".
"We need mercy to renew ourselves and overwhelm the world with serenity and peace and thus become life makers," she said.
Turning to the political situation, Baboun called on the world to support peace in Palestine. "Yes, it is time for the world to stand together in unity to end the suffering of our Palestinian people, whose identity resides in the sustainability of their existence as people and land."
During all three Christmas Eve celebrations, Ziad will be among the officials welcoming the heads of the churches.
|it is time for the world to stand together in unity to end the suffering of our Palestinian people.
- Ziad al-Bandak, presidential adviser for Christian affairs
When the scouts finish playing their drums and bagpipes and the official welcoming ceremony is over, the church leaders proceed into the Nativity Church.
This year, Ziad al-Bandak will point out the unusual renovations taking place at the Church of Nativity. Eleven million dollars have been spent in order to renovate the place of worship with precision and sensitivity in accordance to standards set by UNESCO.
Bandak is proud that the Palestinian president made the first one million dollar contribution to begin the church renovation fundraising process. Other Palestinian commercial and private donors have chipped in nearly half of the cost with the international community making up the rest of the costs, Bandak said.
Bandak, who heads the presidential committee supervising the Nativity Church restoration, expressed pride in the effort.
"I am proud of that while Christians in the Orient are being discriminated against, and their churches are being burn, here in Palestine and despite the occupation we have insisted on the restoration of the church," he said.
"It is a historic site and has been the oldest continuous church since the fourth century."
Bethlehem, Palestine - the birthplace of Jesus - becomes the centre of the world's attention three times every Christmas. The message of Christmas - of peace of earth and goodwill to all men - sounds hallow as the Israeli occupation continues to stifle the ability of Palestinians to live in freedom and independence.
But regardless of the political and military power, nothing will stop the believers from the three different churches from celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.