No Christmas tree in Bethlehem this year

A priest and monk walk at the Church of the Nativity on the day of the launch of the beginning of the Christmas season, as the conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank December 2, 2023. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

This year, Bethlehem stands in stark contrast to its usual festive atmosphere, as the absence of a Christmas tree at the historic site of Jesus’ birth marks a departure from tradition. The decision to pare down celebrations, as expressed by Father Ibrahim Faltas, a senior Franciscan friar, is a response to the grim shadow cast by the ongoing Gaza war. The town, nestled in the occupied West Bank near Jerusalem, has witnessed the ebb and flow of Israeli-Palestinian clashes over the years, but the current conflict in the Gaza Strip, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away, has intensified emotions among the local populace.

In the early days of December, Bethlehem typically comes alive with the convergence of church leaders to inaugurate the pre-Christmas Advent season. This event, usually a major tourist attraction, paints the streets and plazas of the hilly town with vibrant colors and echoes of joy. However, this year, the atmosphere is noticeably different – a poignant emptiness prevails under the dry winter sun.

Father Ibrahim Faltas aptly captures the unprecedented sentiment, stating, “We have never seen Bethlehem like this, not even during the time of COVID. The town is empty, sad.” The absence of the Christmas tree in Nativity Square, a customary centerpiece, becomes a symbol of the town’s decision to embrace a more somber celebration. Father Francesco Patton of the Custody of the Holy Land church group articulates this sentiment, noting, “We will celebrate in sobriety. That means without the fanfare and without too many lights, in the most spiritual way and more (among) families than in the square.”

The impact of the ongoing conflict is palpable in the expressions of pain and sympathy for the victims. Father Ibrahim Faltas speaks of the deep sorrow felt by Palestinians for “the many children, women, the elderly, the people who were martyred in this crazy war.” The toll of the conflict, with conflicting figures from Gazan authorities and Israel, underscores the gravity of the situation.

In a Nov. 10 statement, church heads in the Holy Land express sympathy for those grappling with the “uncertain fate of those dear to them,” possibly alluding to the families and friends of around 240 people taken hostage by Hamas. The decision to forgo the usual Christmas festivities becomes an act of solidarity, as the town focuses on the spiritual essence of the season amidst the challenging circumstances of the ongoing conflict.

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