Bethlehem: home of Christmas

Amy Rodriguez19 November 2021

Pro Terra Sancta launches a Christmas campaign in an increasingly crisis-ridden Bethlehem

With the end of the restrictions, Bethlehem is even poorer. Before the acute phase of the pandemic, rivers of pilgrims and tourists poured into the town where Jesus was born. Souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels were flourishing and the majority of the population was employed in the tourism and hospitality industry. 

Usually, Christmas was the most profitable time for the city. The illuminated streets, the open shops full of all kinds of products attracted visitors and provided families with secure support. In these pandemic years, this will not happen. Bethlehem is still empty, and struggling to get back on its feet because of the bad trauma it has suffered in the past years.

That is why Pro Terra Sancta has decided this year to launch a campaign to support the people of Bethlehem, who are suffering from poverty and unemployment. The campaign “Bethlehem: home of Christmas” starts these days. In the place where, more than any other, Christmas is pivotal, it is now possible to go back to shiny shop windows, busy streets and hopeful eyes.     

Suha: reinventing oneself after the crisis 

“I used to clean and welcome guests at the Dar Al Majus guesthouse” says Suha. Her husband was also employed as a handyman in the guesthouse. He was tireless, despite his illness. 

Now few pilgrims stay overnight in Bethlehem. The few that do come are almost “kidnapped” by the man: from two garages he has created a small museum where he displays traditional clothes, art objects and antiques. 

In just a few seconds you find yourself with a cup of Turkish coffee in your hand, wandering among colourful sofas, low tables, inlaid gaming sets and a large cauldron of musical instruments, work tools, typewriters and old posters. Vintage Palestinian style. 

It is the colourful fabrics decorated with repeated geometric shapes found in Dar al Majus and in the city’s shops that have inspired many of the objects that Suha, together with five other women and mothers, produces for Bet-women

“We couldn’t ask anyone for help: everyone was in the same situation,” recalls Monika, one of the participants in the project as she thinks back to the lockdown period. 

Even Ghada’s husband, another Bet-women member, could not find another job after Covid: “He used to work as a salesman in a souvenir shop. Now he is looking for something else, but it is not easy,” she explains. 

Historic family businesses in danger 

Roni’s shop is also in a difficult situation. His shop windows are still full of olive wood statues, nativity scenes and small masterpieces of carved mother-of-pearl, one of Bethlehem’s handicraft specialties. But there are not many customers. 

His business has been in the family for three generations. Roni’s father now spends his time sitting on a stool behind the counter. He has a black walkie talkie in his hand, with which he occasionally calls his sons to update them on the situation in the shop, the square or to remind them of their duties. 

Roni, in fact, is always on the move: despite the economic difficulties, he has never shied away from helping his fellow citizens as much as he can, doing charity work when he can afford it or going to work for some sudden emergency. Today, he had to leave the shop and help his friend George, down the street, who had his car broken down. 

Also of concern to Roni and his family is the ability to replenish the stock: with most of the artisans closing shop, will he be able to buy new souvenirs? Will he have to raise prices? Will the tourists return? Every day is more uncertain. 

The shutters on Star Street, coloured lilac, yellow and turquoise to bring a touch of vibrancy to the neighbourhood, are almost all closed. 

Star Street, followed by the Magi on their way to Jesus, is also the oldest street created outside the old city walls to allow pilgrims to reach the Basilica of the Nativity.

The last craftsman on Star Street 

This was the area of the craft shops. Olive wood, silver and mother-of-pearl were once worked here in small shops. It was the Franciscan friars who introduced the local Christian community to these creative industries in the 1800s: they wanted to create new job opportunities. 

The loud screech of an electric saw leads us into a basement full of shavings and machinery. Behind the machine is an old man with thick glasses. He is carefully cutting out 3 cm squares from a block of wood. 

“These will become pendants with a nativity scene,” Mr Michel tells us during a break he has taken to offer us tea. He is the only craftsman who has opened his shop today

“I can’t afford to pay an apprentice any more, even if there are no young people who would like to learn my trade,’ he says, ‘but Christmas is coming soon. I’ll have to work late again today”. 

Mr Michel is 68 years old and has two children who have just left to look for work abroad. The children’s daughters and grandchildren have stayed behind in Bethlehem, and he does everything he can to help them financially. 

“Do you think the tourists will come back?” he asks. We answer in the affirmative, that we have no doubts, and return to Jerusalem wearing one of his pendants. Yet, we don’t know if things will go back to the way they were, if tourism will start to grow again. 

The only real certainty we have is that we will not abandon the Bethlehem community. Our economic support and job development projects have never stopped, even during the pandemic. From psycho-social support for individual families, to help with home renovations for the elderly and people with disabilities, to the construction of the new Community Home that houses and trains construction workers, to the new vocational training courses planned… Pro Terra Sancta remains and continues to help, especially at Christmas.