Palestine's many Christmases: Faces of diversity in the cradle of Christianity

11 min read
24 December, 2021

The streets of the old city in Bethlehem look empty for a usual late December Sunday. Souvenir shops remain closed, with some exceptions, since the beginning of the pandemic, two years ago.

Pilgrims that used to fill the place with prayers in all languages, from Italian to Polish, are nowhere to be seen. But the Christmas atmosphere remains present.

Visitors to the Nativity Basilica are local Palestinian Christians, coming from across the West Bank, Jerusalem and Galilee, but the majority are from Bethlehem itself. Although they all speak Arabic, their praying rites are different. Some are Greek Orthodox, some are Greek Catholic, others are Roman Catholic, or as known in Palestine, Latin, and some few are Protestants.

Christmas in Bethlehem is a distinctive feature of the city. A long-range tool of communication into the world, and the main tourist theme, essential in a city that relies on tourism as a main economic resource.

The Christmas season begins in early December with the recently-made traditional, yearly lighting of the Christmas tree. A celebration that gathers Christians and Muslims alike. Celebrations culminate on December 25. But inside Bethlehem itself, the diversity of Christian traditions translates into different dates of celebration, for different communities.

Nativity square
The Nativity Square, in front of the Nativity church, witness most of the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, every year [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

Historical date-split

The Christian tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 dates back to the fourth century. Since the Gospel doesn't specify the date of Jesus’ birth, the church of the time decided to place Christmas on the same day of the Greco-Roman festivity of the sun, or the day of ‘Natalis Solis Invictus’, celebrating the re-birth of the sun, or its return to rise in the horizon, making daytime longer.

However, in 1583, roughly 80 years after the Christian church split into an Eastern ‘Greek Orthodox’ and a Western ‘Roman Catholic church, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a reform to the solar year calendar, known as the Julian calendar, adjusting the drift in the solar year caused by intervening centuries.

The reform caused most Christian festivities in the new Gregorian calendar to come some 13 days earlier than in the old Julian one. The Eastern Orthodox church continued to use the Julian calendar, while the Catholic church, and by extension the Western world, adopted the Gregorian calendar, causing two different dates for Christmas. For the Orthodox Christians, Christmas is still being celebrated on December 25, according to the Julian calendar, coinciding with January 7 according to the Gregorian one.

For centuries, Palestine’s Christians followed only the Orthodox, Julian calendar, although a Catholic presence existed through the Franciscan fathers since 1217. Then in 1847, Pope Pius IX decided to restore the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, which existed symbolically in Rome since the crusades.

Pope Pius appointed a new bishop ‘Patriarch’, Monsignor Giuseppe Valerga, to establish Catholic parishes in the holy land. Valerga arrived in Jerusalem in 1848 and began to visit local Christian communities, winning converts to his church. Since then, wherever Palestinian Christians are present, Christmas is celebrated twice a year.

Herodes, the grotto, and the meaning of Christmas

In the inner courtyards of the Nativity basilica, a group of school students gather around a young Catholic priest, listening to his explanation. The group comes from the Catholic parish of Taybeh, a small all-Christian Palestinian town in the Eastern countryside of Ramallah. “These are middle-school students from our local catholic school of Taybeh,” explains Father Bashar Fawadleh. “We are visiting the Nativity church as part of our preparations for Christmas.”

Father Bashar Fawadleh gives a special explanation about the meaning of Christmas for Palestinians. “It was here, in our land, that Jesus was born, bringing his message of peace and love to the entire world,” he enthusiastically stresses.

Some of the girls wearing headscarves listen as attentively as their classmates wearing a cross. “All of our Latin patriarchate schools are religiously-mixt,” points out Father Bashar Fawdleh. “Some of these students, Muslims and Christians alike, visit Bethlehem for the first time. It is very important for them to know the city and the Nativity church in person, not only spiritually, but also as Palestinians,” he affirms.

Nativity visit
"It is very important for our students to visit the Nativity church, not only spiritually, but also as Palestinians" - Father Bashar Fawadleh [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

Inside the Saint Joseph grotto, an extension to the grotto where Jesus is believed to be born, running under the Catholic part of the Nativity church, a young catholic volunteer from the Christian youth movement gives a very Palestinian explanation of the site: “Here, according to the tradition, the families of Bethlehem buried their children whom Herodes had murdered, in his attempt to kill the newly-born Messiah, two thousand years ago,” he exclaims with paused, eloquent words. “In this same place, in 2002 during the Israeli siege to the church of Nativity, the priests and the resistance fighters who took refuge in the church, kept the bodies of those who the occupation forces killed during the siege.”

From Galilee to Bethlehem

A few metres away, on the altar of the Orthodox part of the church, built exactly above the birth of Jesus’ grotto, a handful of Greek-Orthodox priests hold a regular mass.

Byzantine hymns, based completely on acapella singing, chanted to the rhythm of incense clouds rising to the ceiling, echo in the main chapel of the basilica, built in the fourth century by Queen Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine.

“In this very place, the mass has been celebrated in the traditional Byzantine rite for sixteen centuries,” exclaims Afram Khoury, in a thrilling voice – a faithful who came with his young wife and his newly-born daughter from Ibillin, a majority-Christian Palestinian town in Galilee.

The Greek-Orthodox mass that Afram and his family are attending is not a special mass for Christmas time, as the Orthodox Christmas is still more than two weeks away. But Afram’s family are in Bethlehem on a Christmas pilgrimage.

Nativity inside
The space inside the Nativity church, built in the 4th century, is divided between three Christians denominations: The Greek Orthodox, The Armenian Orthodox and the Latin Catholic. [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

Afram is from the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church – split away from the Constantinople-based, Greek-Orthodox church and became predominantly Arabic, in culture and in the language of prayer, around the 7th century. The Melkite church joined the Catholic churches who followed the pope of Rome, in the 18th century, keeping its Eastern, Byzantine rites. Afram’s family, therefore, celebrates Christmas with the rest of the Catholics, on December 25, but in Byzantine style, similar to the Orthodox.

Afram and his wife seek blessings for their baby. Once the Orthodox mass concludes, they make their way around the altar and descend the few stairs to the Nativity grotto. “It is a blessing for us to be here, in the exact birth-place of Jesus,” says Afram. “It is a very intense spiritual moment for us.” 

Afram and his wife lay down their baby in the centre of a low-covered one square-metre stone, placed right above what is believed to be the very spot of the most celebrated birth in history, and take a moment of meditation.

Family in Nativity
Palestinian Christian families visit the Nativity grotto, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, seeking blessings for their children [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

A different tradition around every corner

Palestine’s Christian diversity is visible in the streets of old Bethlehem. Around every corner, there is a sign indicating a worship place, a monastery or a chapel of a different Christian community.

In general, 13 different Christian churches are present in Palestine, belonging to three large ritual families; Orthodox, Catholics, and two small, Anglican and Lutheran, Protestant churches.

Orthodox being the oldest and with largest numbers, are distributed in several churches. One of them is the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church, made up essentially of Christian families of Egyptian descent, who arrived in Palestine over many centuries and remained in communion with their Coptic church of Alexandria.

A few hundred metres away from the Nativity church, deep in the alleys of old Bethlehem, is the Virgin Lady Monastery of Coptic Orthodox sisters. The chief nun, who prefers not to be photographed and presents herself simply as ‘Ummina’, Arabic for ‘Our Mother’, welcomes visitors with a calm voice. “Our church bought this place from the sons of a Greek-Orthodox priest in 1948,” she explains. “During the building of the monastery, they discovered an underground grotto that is connected to the Nativity church through a tunnel. Early Christians probably used it to escape in times of persecution,” she says.

Bethlehem Coptic convent sign
The old city of Bethlehem houses numerous convents, chapels and monasteries of different Christian communities are present [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

The grotto is arranged as a chapel, where the Coptic priest celebrates mass with the nuns every day. “The Coptic community in Palestine is a small one,” indicates Ummina. "Most of the Coptic families live in Jerusalem, some in Ramallah, and a few families live in Bethlehem. Some of them join us for mass in this chapel occasionally, but celebrate Sunday mass in other Orthodox churches.”

Coptic Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 7. Their bishop makes his ceremonial entry to the Nativity church with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch on January 6. “For us, preparation for Christmas consists mainly in special daily prayers, meditation and fasting. It all culminates with the entry of our Bishop to the Nativity church and the midnight mass, which we celebrate alongside Greek-Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox,” she adds.

Coptic grotto Bethlehem
"During the building of this monastery, they found a grotto connected to the Nativity church through a tunnel. Early Christians probably used it to escape in times of persecution" - Chief nun 'Ummina' of the Coptic Orthodox convent in Bethlehem. [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

The popular Christmas

In contrast with the small presence of the Coptic community in Bethlehem, the Syriac Orthodox is a numerous one. Their parish in Bethlehem counts around 700 families, according to Basem Syriani, a church volunteer in his forties and leader of the Syriac scout troop. “We celebrate Christmas on January 7, but we take part in the popular celebrations that happen in December,'' explains Syriani. “We visit Catholic families, especially that many of us are married to Catholics and our families are often mixed, and our scout troop participates in the reception of the Latin Patriarch in the Nativity Church on December 24.” Basem Syriani gives his explanation as a member of the scout troop hangs a red Syriac flag over the parish courtyard.

The popular parade of scout troops on the eve of Catholic Christmas is a major event in Bethlehem. Bands from all over historical Palestine march with flags to the music of drums and bag-pipes through the streets of old Bethlehem, culminating with a triumphal parade through the crowded Nativity square, before the arrival of the Catholic Patriarch. Even Muslim and non-religious scout troops take out their uniforms for the occasion. Last year, however, the parade happened without crowds, due to the Covid pandemic.

In 1994, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat further popularised the celebration by establishing the tradition of attending the Catholic midnight mass, broadcasted on national tv – a tradition followed by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. Although the Palestinian president also attends the Orthodox midnight mass on January 7, it is December 24 that has remained the popular day of celebration.

Syriac flag Bethlehem
The Syriac Orthodox community in Bethlehem counts around 700 families, according to the community leaders [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

Holding on to the 'language of Jesus'

Most of the Syriac families arrived in Palestine from Northern Syria and Southern Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century escaping persecution. The Syriac church, however, was already present in Jerusalem since the 7th century.

“We have a strong sense of identity as Syriacs,” Syriani points out. “We have a primary school where all the parish children begin their education, learning the basics of our ancient Syriac language,” he goes on, as two young members of the scouts troop exhibit their names tattooed on their arms, in ancient Syriac.

Syriac tattoo Bethlehem
Syriac, also known as Aramaic, is believed to be the commonly-spoken language in Palestine in times of Jesus. [Qassam Muaddi / TNA]

The Syriac language, also known as Aramaic, is believed to be the spoken language of common people in the days when Jesus walked the countrysides of Palestine. It is spoken as a native, everyday language only in two towns in the Middle East, one of them being the famous Maaloulah in Syria. But in Bethlehem, it is the language of prayer. One of the parish members, Suad Khoury, a woman in her seventies, proudly chants to The New Arab’s camera the words of the Lord’s prayer “Our father who is in heaven” in Aramaic, or Syriac, as believed to have been pronounced by Jesus himself.

Palestinian Christmas Celebration


Attempts to unify dates

The religious and cultural richness of the Christian diversity in Palestine contrasts with the low numbers of Christians in the country. According to Christianity Today, there are currently some 48,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, making roughly one percent of the population, and around 177,000 Palestinian Christians within Israel’s 1948 boundaries, about nine percent of Israel’s population.

The decreasing numbers of Christians in Palestine, due mainly to immigration, have motivated some local attempts to unify celebration dates in some communities, since the late 1980s.

Father Bashar Fawadleh points out that in the hometown of his parish in Taybeh, near Ramallah, “families celebrate Christmas on the Catholic date of December 25, whether they are Catholic or Orthodox, and they all celebrate Easter according to the Orthodox date.” He indicates that “many of the school students who came today to Bethlehem are from mixt, Catholic-Orthodox families.”

But the unified celebration remains a social thing, as the official, ritual Christmas mass for Orthodox, remains in January. An “institutional matter between church hierarchies,” according to Father Bashar Fawadleh.

The Catholic Christmas, however, has become, according to Ummina from the Coptic Orthodox monastery, “the popular date of celebration in Bethlehem and in Palestine. It is not only the Catholic religious festivity but also a non-spiritual, yearly festivity of the people, including Muslims, as well as a touristic brand for the country and for Bethlehem in particular.”

It is a celebration that marks the end of another year of occupation, a pandemic, and of streets empty of pilgrims in Bethlehem. A city where Palestinians anxiously pray, as they do every December, for different times. Prayers that mark the Christmas atmosphere, as churches and monasteries close their doors for another day, and the night falls over the Nativity square.

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories