There's no Christmas in Bethlehem this year. With war in Gaza, festivities are off
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Jack Giacaman enjoys telling customers that every day is Christmas in his shop, which features hand-crafted olive-wood Nativity scenes, camels and crosses.
But this year there will be no Christmas in the city that is synonymous with the birth of Jesus, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Last month, Palestinian leaders of Christian denominations here came together, and citing the devastating war in Gaza made a unanimous decision to cancel public celebrations.
There's no Christmas tree or sparkling lights in Manger Square or along the cobble-stone streets that should be bustling with foreign tourists this time of year. There will be no Christmas parade with musicians weaving through the old city's labyrinth walkways, no Santas on street corners doling out joy to children. Instead, the main square is a simple parking lot, without a hint of holiday decoration to be seen.
At Christmas House, Giacaman's shop, things have been bad since shortly after the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel by Gaza-based Hamas militants that killed 1,200 people, Israel says. Israel's military has responded with an air-and-ground assault that has killed more than 18,000 people, according to Gaza's health ministry.
"This is the worst Christmas. Even during the first intifada, the second intifada, it was not like this," he says, referring to the Palestinian uprisings against Israel that began in 1987 and 2000, respectively.
Giacaman, a Christian who has lived in Bethlehem all his life, traces his ancestry back to conquering crusaders who arrived in the area centuries ago. At his shop, a small group of artisans are hard at work, shaping statues of Mary and the infant Jesus and stamping out Christmas tree ornaments, all piled up, ready for a holiday rush that isn't coming this year.
The shop has been in the family for three generations. Over the years, it's weathered more than a few shocks to the business, most recently the COVID-19 pandemic — but Giacaman says this is the worst he can remember.
At home, his family is also having trouble feeling the Christmas spirit. His teenage daughters said they weren't interested in decorating this year. "They said we don't have the feeling to put up the Christmas tree," he says. "I was a little bit sad. So I just put the Nativity set on the table."
Just off of Manger square, Osama Al-Alli chats with a dozen or so of his fellow taxi drivers, as they wait in vain for a fare. In most years, there would be "many people coming from all the world," he says, with so many lights. "Now, it's dark at night."
Al-Alli, who is a Muslim, worries about the future. "But I am praying for peace, for Israel and Palestine to come together," he says.
A few feet away, stands the Church of the Nativity, famous for its grotto marking the exact location where Christians believe Jesus was born. The church, first built in the fourth century by the Roman emperor Constantine, should be packed, with a long queue snaking toward the sacred spot. But now, it's nearly empty.
One of the few visitors is Florida resident Linda Nocera. It's her fifth trip to Israel, but her first visit to Bethlehem. Nocera thinks the decision by the city's churches to forego Christmas celebrations is the right one, "because of the war and because of all of the terrible killing," she says.
"It's heart-wrenching and I believe it's not of God in any way, shape or form," she says. "I am praying to the Lord that there will be an end [to it], forever. And there will be a solution to this."
Near the front of the church, the Salahat family peers down the well-worn stone stairs that lead to the grotto. It's also their first time in Bethlehem. They knew there wouldn't be lights or festivities, but came anyway. They left their village east of Nablus in the West Bank before dawn for what should have taken about three hours. It turned into a seven-hour drive that included waits at several Israeli checkpoints — many new since Oct. 7 — and a route made more complicated by an Israeli-built separation barrier in and around the West Bank.
The Salahats are Muslim, but Noor, 18, wanted to see Bethlehem. "I wanted to come to learn about other religions. I want to learn about other cultures. I want to see how others celebrate," she says.
A short walk from the Church of the Nativity is the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. There, the Rev. Munther Isaac and his congregation chose this year to make a statement about the killing of so many children in Gaza.
Using broken cement and paving stones, they placed the baby Jesus in the center of a pile of debris from a collapsed home, inspired by television images of children being pulled from the rubble, Issac says.
"I always say we need to de-romanticize Christmas," he says. "In reality, it's a story of a baby who was born in the most difficult circumstances and the Roman Empire under occupation, who survived the massacre of children himself when he was born. So the connection was natural to us."
Issac says he's surprised at the international interest that his church has received as a result of its display of baby Jesus amid the rubble.
"We're happy that we were able to speak for our people and that this one picture spoke more than many, many words," he says, but adds: "I'm still baffled and struggling as to why this picture [drew] more attention ... than actual pictures of children in Gaza."
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