Five things Friday roundup: Christmas in Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. — Andrea De Avila

In 2019, my partner and I did a few weeks of service in Palestine with Community Peacemaker Teams. Afterwards, my grandparents joined us, and we traveled around the area getting to know a bit more of the place and visiting “new” friends. Some of these friends were the family of Julia Khair, whom we had met as an IVEPer (International Volunteer Exchange Program — Mennonite Central Committee) a couple of years prior in Canada. Julia and her family are from a suburb of Bethlehem. They received us with the most hospitality I’ve experienced in my life!

Julia Khair and Andrea De Avila. — Andrea De Avila

As we approach the third Sunday of advent, which focuses on joy, I struggled to find something joyous to write about. I’ve asked my Palestinian friend to help me think of things that are joyous during this season. She has kindly and vulnerably shared with me the things that bring her the most joy to think about, but also the ones she misses the most being away from home.

1. The tree

Public Christmas in Bethlehem is cancelled this year, but normally Christmas in Bethlehem is huge. Around Dec. 10 the decorations start going up, if they aren’t already, at the Church of the Nativity. The scouts march, the minister of Bethlehem is present, the priest offers some words, people sing and everyone makes a collective countdown to the lighting-up of the tree on the main square. Julia’s family would also go back home after being at the lighting of the tree at the square and do their own family lighting of the tree festivities.

2. Gifts

Christian Palestinians celebrate two Christmases: the western Christmas on Dec. 24 and 25 (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day); and Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 6 and 7 (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Families gather on both of these dates and celebrate together. Some families share gifts on the western Christmas Day and some on the Orthodox Christmas Day. Kids grow up with a flesh-and-bone Santa delivering gifts. This happens because the stores offer the parents a service of wrapping and holding on to presents until the day they are delivered by the store Santa.

3. Food

There is no specific Palestinian Christmas food, at least for Julia’s family. However, families tend to go all-out during the festivities. They don’t cook things that they would make regularly. Instead, they go to the butcher and buy the neck or the whole side of the cow (depending on the size of the family) and cook it with spices and rice and, of course, yogurt. The meat has to be cooked to perfection and if other meats are needed or desired, families go with something like lamb, but definitely not chicken.

4. Family

Julia’s family is among the biggest in one of the suburbs of Bethlehem. So, for Christmas, her family had to rent a wedding hall to hold over 400 people. Traditionally, Palestinians spend Christmas with the husband’s side of the family. However, this does not mean that parents don’t get to see their married daughters. Parents visit their married daughters over the following days after Christmas, and this happens again the following week. The point is, there is a lot of family visiting!

5. Unity

Julia explained that from personal experience, she seems to notice how in her culture, this season allows people to put away their differences and come together to enjoy time in fellowship. Family, love, prayers and celebration are the point of being with each other.

Andrea De Avila

Andrea De Avila is an ordained minister with a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies from Canadian Mennonite University. Originally from Read More

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