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Backstory: The manger gets farther away

Recognizing Bethlehem – the site of the Christmas story – is increasingly difficult.

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"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ..."

The holiday carol couldn't be more right. The Christmas lights are on, but nobody's home; plastic Santas on Star Street wiggle to Arabic renditions of "Frosty the Snowman"; Jesus holograms and vials of "Best Quality Holy Water, Authenticity Guaranteed" crowd the shelves of Nativity Street shops.

But nowadays the streets are empty of Christmas souvenir shoppers. Bethlehem, historic birthplace of Jesus and modern-day home to 48,000 Palestinians – teetering on the precarious brink of the West Bank – has brought out its usual line of products: And, like much of the atmosphere in this important Holy Land site, it's not always what the serious pilgrim might expect. There are plastic Christmas trees, frothy tinsel, and fluorescent Angel Gabriel baubles.

But, unlike pre-intifada years when floods of Christian tourists from the US, Europe, and Latin America descended on the town each year with credit cards at the ready (filling up on Virgin Mary candles – "see her weep wax" – and shirts emblazoned with "My mom went to the birthplace of Christ and all I got was this lousy T-shirt") hardly anyone's here to appreciate it.

This may have something to do with how tourists now have to get here. A daytrip to the Christmas sites of Bethlehem starts at the vast, distinctly unmerry, military "security terminal" opened by Israel just before Christmas 2005. Along with the "security wall," it blocks what was for centuries the pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Amid signs enthusiastically requesting that you "Please Keep this Terminal Clean," the visitor finds him- or herself in a vast metal hangar. Gantries high overhead are patrolled by yawning machinegun-toting soldiers. An occasional snippet of Snoop Dogg blasts out incongruously through the public address system, testament to other bored soldiers, armed with CDs and questionable musical taste, secreted somewhere behind the scenes.

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