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Bethlehem Cancels Christmas, But Local Pastors Still Expect a Holy Night

As war disrupts traditional festivities, Palestinian Christians see an opportunity to return to the Nativity story and share the gospel.
Bethlehem Cancels Christmas, But Local Pastors Still Expect a Holy Night
Image: Maja Hitij / Getty Images
Bethlehem is usually bustling with tourists at Christmastime.

At Immanuel Evangelical Church in Bethlehem, instead of Christmas lights, senior pastor Nihad Salman rummaged out a banner from the church closet. The banner has a picture of a woman fleeing bomb-shelled buildings, and printed in Arabic are the words “Let us arise and worship God.”

The last time the church had the banner out was two years ago, during the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas. That banner sums up Salman’s approach to Christmas during wartime this year. He sees an opportunity to preach the gospel to people who live under military occupation while grieving the deaths of their people in Gaza.

“People will be asking more questions,” he said. “We have seen that always after a crisis, people are seeking: What is the truth? Where is the truth? So we have lots of work to do.”

Church leaders in Bethlehem and across the Holy Land have decided to mute Christmas celebrations this year due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Typically, Bethlehem—a Palestinian city of about 30,000 people in the Israeli-occupied West Bank—is jammed with more than 3 million visitors coming from all over the world to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.

Marching bands and carol singers and dancers and fireworks would fill the city with loud cheer and festive energy. Thousands would pack the Church of the Nativity, golden lights would twinkle across Star Street, and a giant tree with a ruby star would illuminate Manger Square.

Instead, the streets are dark and hushed.

It will be a silent night this Christmas—but it’ll still be a holy night, according to local Christian leaders. Stripping Christmas of all its extraneous decorations and Western traditions, they say, will help them focus on the true meaning of Christmas.

Salman told the 50 children in his church, “This year, you’re not going to get a present. You’re going to give a present.” He challenged them to brainstorm ways to fundraise—whether it’s through hawking chewing gum or selling homemade cakes. However much they make, the church will match it, and they’ll use the funds to buy presents for the neighborhood’s poor children on Christmas.

Spread the gospel as you fundraise, he told the kids: “Tell everyone why you’re doing this.”

At the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, pastor Munther Isaac continues to draw attention to the war in Gaza and calls for an immediate ceasefire.

Instead of the traditional manger scene, his church made a mound of broken stone and concrete to represent the rubbles in Gaza, and on top of the rubble, placed a baby Jesus wrapped in a Palestinian keffiyeh.

“God is under the rubble in Gaza,” Isaac preached in the first few weeks of the war. “He is with the frightened and the refugees. He is in the operating room. This is our consolation. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. If we want to pray, my prayer is that those who are suffering will feel this healing and comforting presence.”

Even if local authorities had not canceled Christmas celebrations, “nobody was going to celebrate,” Isaac told CT. “Nobody is in a mood to celebrate.” From his perspective, he sees the war as “genocide.” He pulled out his cell phone to show what he was referring to: images and videos of ashen mothers and broken bodies in Gaza.

His church is completely bare of Christmas trees, lights, and Santa. Ceasing Christmas celebrations, he said, has provided “a great opportunity to rethink the meaning of Christmas.”

The words people once associated with Christmas were Santa, tree, gifts, carols—all “romanticized” traditions from the West, Isaac said. Today, he thinks of words from the Christmas story of the Bible: Caesar, census, massacre, and refugee in Egypt—relevant to Palestinians who have to register to travel outside the West Bank and who seek safety in Egypt.

To Isaac, the Christmas story is about God in human form, present with people in their suffering. He pointed at his church’s Nativity scene, at baby Jesus in the rubbles: “That’s how Christmas is celebrated here. … But the prayers will continue. The prayers will not stop.”

Despite the heavy and tense atmosphere—or rather, because of it—at least one place has decided to continue with Christmas festivities this year.

The Jerusalem International YMCA (JIY) in West Jerusalem decided to commence their annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, after the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem asked Christians in the region to avoid “unnecessarily festive” Christmas activities this year.

Fadi Suidan, CEO of JIY, said he and his staff carried heavy hearts even as they encircled the giant Christmas tree with lights in preparation for the event.

“We had a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. “It was hard for us to rejoice.”

But he felt it necessary and important to keep the annual tradition. “It was for the children. We had to bring hope for the children. We need to think about the sanity of the children. The children are waiting for this every year. How do you explain to children that there is no Christmas this year?”

So on December 3, the first Sunday of Advent, about 600 children and their families gathered around the Christmas tree at JIY, attending a much toned-down party. Instead of loud jingle-jangle Christmas songs projected through loudspeakers, a band of one cello and three violins played soft acoustic music.

It wasn’t just for the children. JIY was from its very beginning founded as a symbol of unity and peace, bringing Jews, Christians, and Muslims together in one space, Suidan said. It was all the more important for him to gather families from different cultures and religions, even to offer a glimpse that such peaceful coexistence is still possible, even in the most contested city on the planet.

During his speech, Suidan told the crowd that the ceremony is a beacon of much-needed hope:

At a time like this, when the world seems fragmented by conflict and strife, our coming together holds even greater meaning. … These lights represent more than just festive traditions. They are a powerful symbol of enduring faith, resilience, and the undying human spirit.

This year, the message of Christmas—the message of love, peace, and goodwill toward all—is more relevant than ever.

Just before they lit the tree, instead of counting down from 10, the crowd yelled, “Hope. Love. Peace!” And lights lit up gold and silver, glimmering around the tree, across the square, and up the towers.

Creating that kind of atmosphere might be possible in Jerusalem, but not in Bethlehem, where the mood is somber.

Eighty percent of people in Bethlehem depend on tourism for their livelihood. Christmas season is when most locals expect to make their biggest income. The war has suffocated their economy, incapacitated their freedom of movement, and increased hostility and fears toward the Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Jewish settlers, who have raided towns, detained and beaten Palestinians, and enforced more checkpoints.

If things don’t change, it’s not a matter of if but when violence explodes in the West Bank, Christians there told CT. The locals are scared, heartbroken, and aggrieved.

On a cold Thursday night in December, about 20 Christians in their teens and early 20s sat in a circle at Immanuel Evangelical Church in Bethlehem to hear the Nativity story. They had heard it hundreds of times. They shared the same birthplace as Jesus. The land and circumstances were all too familiar.

Elias Al-Najjar, their youth ministry leader, lived his own version of the Bethlehem narrative. In November 2007, he and his family fled Gaza after an Islamic militant group threatened Christians at his church and killed a fellow church member. At the time, his wife was nine months pregnant. They arrived in Bethlehem not knowing a single person, where to stay, or where to deliver the baby, with just a piece of paper scribbled with the phone numbers of several health services in the area.

He thought about his own experience that night as he retold the Christmas story.

“Imagine Mary leaning on a wall, pregnant in her last hour. Imagine Bethlehem being full, just like how it would be full now if there wasn’t a war in Gaza. Imagine not knowing where they would stay. No one to contact,” he told them in Arabic.

“And imagine Mary thinking, ‘Didn’t God tell me I’m going to give birth to the King of Kings?’ Imagine them reaching the place where she would give birth. A big shock! The stench. The animals. In the midst of all that, she delivered Jesus Christ. And they were filled with joy.”

Now think about the people in Gaza, he said. Of course, they didn’t need much imagination—they see videos of the war every day. In the midst of mayhem, children are born and children are killed.

This is the Christmas story,” Al-Najjar said. “All these small details that we don’t usually think about. On Christmas, we usually put up decorations and have fun with Christmas trees and lights. But if you look at the real story of Christmas, it was a story of pure hardship. But God didn’t leave Mary and Joseph. And they didn’t leave God.”

He looked around the room. “So why should we?”

[ This article is also available in español العربية Indonesian русский, and Українська. ]

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