Elizabeth Monier on Bethlehem Is More Than a Sentimental Backdrop to Christmas in the West

From The Oxford Handbook of Christmas edited by Timothy Larsen. Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Larsen and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


Although the Christmas story could be said to have begun at any number of points or places, it was Bethlehem that became the stage for the birth of Jesus. Today, Bethlehem is recreated in village halls, school auditoriums, and churches all over the world for the annual ritual of the Nativity play. The imagery of the humble stable, lit up by a star, with the shepherds and wise men converging upon it, is familiar from the greetings cards we send. At Christmas carol concerts we sing “O little town of Bethlehem.” Somehow this often remains disconnected from our imagining of Christmas, which, in the West, is so heavily tied up with traditions formed in the Victorian period in England and in America and so is removed geographically and temporally from Bethlehem at the time of Jesus.

Our Christmas cards focus on two distinct themes: the snowy scenes and cozy fires of Europe and North America, and the depictions of the Middle East with camels, people in Eastern dress, and a donkey beating a dusty path to Bethlehem. While both these aspects are entwined, the Middle Eastern scenery is present mainly as the backdrop. It represents a distant time and ancient land.

What is glossed over is that Christians live and worship and celebrate Christmas in the Middle East still. For many Christians in the Middle East, and especially those from the Holy Land, there is a sense that they are overlooked, despite the ancient roots of their communities. The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian and pastor in the Lutheran Church, has described in many of his publications and talks how he has encountered surprise that there are Christians in Palestine on numerous occasions. In actuality, there have been Christians in the Middle East continuously since the birth of the Christian faith. Christmas is therefore widely celebrated throughout the region, and its diverse Christian communities proudly celebrate their links to the earliest Christians.

Bethlehem was a village at the time of Jesus’ birth. Today it has a population of approximately 25,000 and is a focus of religious life for Palestinian Christians. The district of Bethlehem includes Bethlehem itself, as well as the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. Approximately half of Palestinian Christians live in this district. Prior to the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Christians made up the majority of the population of Bethlehem, but they are now the minority.

Despite this, Palestinian Christians emphasize their rootedness in the region and in Christian faith and history by referring to themselves as the “living stones” (al-Hijara al-Haya), an expression drawn from the Bible (1 Pet. 2:5). This chain linking modern Christians in the Middle East with the first Christians is important in many different denominations and national communities. The tradition of the flight of the holy family to Egypt is important to Egyptian Christians, as is the tradition that the Coptic Orthodox Church was founded by Saint Mark. Other Christians, such as those belonging to the Syriac churches (including the Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Catholic Church) emphasize the fact that they still use a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Clearly, Christianity is not foreign to, nor removed from, the modern Middle East.

This demonstrates that Bethlehem is more than a clichéd image for Christmas cards or backdrop for school Nativity plays. It is also more than a site for foreign Christian pilgrims to visit. Bethlehem, and the Middle East in general, are not just a historical backdrop to the first Christmas. Christians continue to inhabit the region, and the link between their local roots and Christian heritage remains integral to their identity and culture. This context gives the contemporary celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem and the Middle East more significance, not less.

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Source: Christianity Today