Palestinians and residents of Israel will gather for the Christmas Eve Mass at the 19th-century Catholic church of St Catherine in Bethlehem.
Marching bands of scouts wielding bagpipes will cheer the gathering in Manger Square, with its nativity scene and tall pine tree dressed in coloured lights. Vendors will proffer hot roasted chestnuts, tea and coffee to cheer revellers.
Last year, Covid-19 restrictions excluded the public from St Catherine’s church but, as usual, the service was broadcast on a massive television screen in Manger Square, where mainly Palestinian celebrants assembled.
In pre-Covid times both church and square were thronged with visitors from abroad who far outnumbered Palestinians.
Bethlehem is once again marking Christmas without foreign pilgrims and tourists, who contribute 90 per cent of the city’s annual revenue. An influx had been expected for this, the peak season, but advance bookings were cancelled when the emergence of the Omicron variant resulted in foreign visitors being barred from visiting Israel. Today there is plenty of room in Bethlehem’s many inns.
The cancellation of the holiday season last year produced protracted privation and economic ruin for Palestinians. Many of the city’s citizens have been forced to scrimp on savings. Businesses have been compelled to take out high interest loans to survive.
As many Christians in Bethlehem gain their living from tourism, pandemic-induced poverty could compel stalwarts who have stayed on to join relatives in Canada, Australia, the US and elsewhere. Christians now make up 16 per cent of the city's 25,000 residents.
The cash-strapped Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority pays for Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations but is in no position to aid the city's struggling residents.
Although Orthodox Christians celebrate January 7th as Jesus’s birth date, priests at the massive sixth-century Basilica of the Nativity adjoining St Catherine’s had hoped to show off its glowing mosaics, restored paintings and refurbished altar screen to pilgrims visiting the grotto where Christ is said to have been born.
The oldest church in the Holy Land, the basilica was named by Unesco as the first Palestinian heritage site in 2012 and, because of water damage, promptly put on the list of endangered sites until 2019, when the restoration work finished.
Once again, Bethlehem has to depend on West Bankers, East Jerusalemites, and Israel’s Palestinian citizens and foreign Christian residents who flock to the city during Christmas.
For many years, Palestinian Muslims and Christians from northern Israel have made patriotic pilgrimages on holidays to Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, surrounded and isolated by Israeli walls, settlements and checkpoints, with the aim of keeping these cities alive and commercially viable.
This year, half of Gaza’s 1,000 Christians have obtained Israeli permits to make the short journey and meet friends and relatives whom they rarely see.
Since the dawn of history, Bethlehem has survived wars, civil conflicts, foreign conquests and plagues, but this may not reassure today’s struggling citizens.