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Bethlehem: The Nativity Capital Of The World

posted on: Dec 22, 2021

Bethlehem, Palestine

By: Anthony Bayyouk / Arab America Contributing Writer

In Bethlehem, Palestine the city where Jesus was born, Christmas is the most important time of the Year. Bayt Lahm as it is known in Arabic is mentioned many times in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the new one. St. Mary and St. Joseph were actually born in Nazareth. But before the birth of Jesus, St. Mary and St. Joseph traveled to Bayt Lahm when King Herod called for a census. Jesus Christ was not born in a luxurious place. He was born in the most humble way possible, in a manger among animals. The Church Of The Nativity now stands at the birthplace of Jesus. Today, Bayt Lahm (Bethlehem) has around 30,000 inhabitants and about two million people from around the globe visit the city every year. It is truly a Palestinian jewel.

Bayt Lahm was once home to the biggest Christian community in the world. Christians have since traveled abroad for bigger opportunities. There is still a small community of Christians that keeps the Christmas spirit alive. For this article, Arab America interviewed Mrs. Maha Saca, a resident of Bayt Lahm. Maha Saca established The Palestinian Heritage Center in 1991. The center focuses on the origins and meanings of traditional embroidery. She had researched the cultural background of many Palestinian communities for the past 20 years. The Center has arranged several exhibitions in various countries around the world as well as lectures and seminars on the topic of Palestinian heritage and traditional costumes. The Center also stages elaborate fashion shows of traditional costumes in local and international venues and her objectives are to preserve and promote Palestinian culture and heritage, something that is beyond important, considering the current situation in Palestine.

In an Arab America’s interview, we asked Saca an array of questions regarding Christmas in Bayt Lahm. Here is what she had to say about celebrating Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus.

What are the Christmas traditions in Bayt Lahm?

Saca stated that Christmas is celebrated in front of the Church of the Nativity. It’s where Christians in Bayt Lahm gather to light up the Christmas tree and enjoy the holidays. She said this will be the first time in two years that Bayt Lahm will be celebrating their Christmas traditions. The festivities were canceled the last two years due to Covid.

Visitors fill the Manger square where they can tour and pray in the Church Of The Nativity. Countless vendors are selling Christmas knick-knacks and Christian-related items such as wood carving icons and crosses. Every year, the governorate of Bayt Lahm lights up the city with a huge Christmas tree in the center of the square. Families from Bethlehem and its surroundings gather in the square, not only do Christians partake in the festivities, but non- Christians also love to bring their children to the tree lighting ceremony, enjoy the drumming of the band of the boy scouts, and take pictures with Santa. It is an opportunity for the whole city to get together and genuinely celebrate the most important time of the year, the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas time gives the people of Bayt Lahm and its surroundings a break from the hardship of living in Palestine. Each year, something new is added to the celebrations and the decorations of Bayt Lahm during the Christmas season and it shows the progression of the Palestinian people.

How does Christmas in Bayt Lahm differ from Christmas in America?

Saca replied: Christmas in Bayt Lahm is not commercialized. In America, the religious meaning of Christmas has been surpassed by well-executed holiday marketing. While Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus, holiday marketing has shifted that focus on spending money on the best gifts and decorations that one can find. But, in Bayt Lahm the religious significance of Christmas has never changed. Christmas in Bayt Lahm is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and following all of its religious traditions.

Overall Maha Saca wants everyone to know that she feels beyond lucky and proud to be from Bayt Lahem. She feels that the Christmas spirit exists all year round, not just during the holiday season. She will never move away from Palestine; her strength is in Bayt Lahm. Mrs. Saca emphasized her most memorable statement, “ Bayt Lahm is the nativity capital of the world.”

Most recently, Saca echoed the same message in her interview with CNN regarding UNESCO’s last action to recognize Palestinian embroidery.

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