Editor’s note: This story was originally published Dec. 24, 2020.
With the West Bank on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christmas in Bethlehem will look different this year. But, in my memory, it still exists as it did in 2013, when I lived just 400 meters from the Church of the Nativity. My apartment was the ground floor of a centuries-old Arab mansion full of windows and light and hand-painted floor tiles and vaulted ceilings that reminded me, everyday, of a cathedral.
The Christmas season I spent in Bethlehem forever changed my understanding of the holiday and its meaning for Christians, Muslims and, yes, even some Jews like me. It also complicated my assumptions about the Middle East, birthplace of all the Abrahamic religions.
For the tree lighting, Mohamed, my now-husband, and I joined the crowd on Manger Square. A simple plaza made of the same sand-colored limestone that covers the rest of Bethlehem — rock that glows peach at sunrise and gold at sunset, shining white at midday, rock that renders the city magical — it is anchored by the Church of the Nativity.
Directly across the square stands the Mosque of Omar. The unlit tree stood in between the two houses of worship. Among the many faces that were turned, expectantly, toward the display, I was surprised to find hijabi women and their families. When I asked Mohamed why so many Muslims were there, he reminded me that, in Islam, Jesus — Issa in Arabic — is considered a prophet. Though his birth isn’t a holiday for Muslim Palestinians, some partake in the celebration by coming to see the tree and lights decorating Bethlehem’s Old City.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, a Christian Palestinian woman who had been elected the year before, took to the stage alongside the tree for the big moment. “It is time now to light the tree of Christmas, in the capital of Christmas, to shine brightness and hope to the world at large and to remain a glorious memory in our heart.”
As Baboun began counting down in Arabic — “Ashara!” Ten! — a band began to play. She hit wahad, one, and the tree remained dark. I held my breath. I felt a flurry of both hope and disappointment.
And then the tree lit, a star glowing red on top. The Muslim and Christian crowd roared. Relieved — and moved by the cheering around me — tears rushed to my eyes. Embarrassed by both my doubt and the magnitude of my relief, I looked away from the lights and away from Mohamed — who would surely think I was nuts for crying — and concentrated on the crowd, searching for familiar faces.
There was a chance, of course, that I would see someone I knew from “inside” — from Israel — as every year a small number of Jewish Israelis sneak out to Bethlehem, an area that is legally off-limits to us, for the event. Those who are too scared to go to the Palestinian territories, or fearful of breaking Israeli law, head to the Arab majority towns and cities north of Israel, to see the Christmas lights and experience the holiday. It’s not ours, but both the timing and the spirit are close to Hannukah and — for some of us — the shared kindling of light and hope resonates.
Thinking back to that night in Bethlehem now at the end of this difficult year, I keep returning to that moment between the countdown and the tree sparking to life. That moment when the darkness enveloping the tree seemed even darker because it wasn’t supposed to be there, because it defied my expectations.
And just when I began to panic, just when I began to lose faith, it came: the light. Just as it did in the beginning, as it always does when we’re certain it won’t. When we’re certain the flame inside is all but dead, God whispers into our hearts, kindling it — kindling us — again and again.