Christmas in Bethlehem: the faces of a living nativity scene

Giacomo Pizzi25 December 2017

At Christmas the nativity scene is set up and reproduced in the cribs, all over the world. The Grotto of the Baby Jesus represents the heart of this sacred and popular representation. In our days there are still people living in Bethlehem, that every year rush towards the manger as it happened more than 2.000 years ago. We went to meet these people, to follow the star that leads us to the place where Jesus was born.

In the beginning we meet Bishàra, the keeper of the Latin Church of St. Catherine adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity. “Christmas is a wonderful time”, he says smiling, and showing the red cross of the Holy Land on his chest. “The important thing for our family and for everyone is that Jesus was born for each of us. For this reason, we are not afraid. I thank God and the Franciscans for whom I work, because my family is healthy. Let us leave the problems to God who knows everyone’s heart”.

Just outside the Basilica, in the large square of the Nativity in front of the beautiful Chirstmas tree and  the crib, there is Rony, one of the many sellers of cribs in Bethlehem, made of wood and mother of pearl. “Do not be afraid, and pray for the Holy Land, especially now that it is Christmas!” He says proudly. His father is there next to him. “Who knows how this Christmas will be”, says his father with a tired look due to the actual political situation of his land. But Rony looks at him smiling and says: “Daddy you know, the last political upheavals make us even stronger and more faithful. We are very happy to live here. It is not just a family tradition that we must continue, our mission is to stay here. We always hope for peace and we want peace for the Holy Land”.

Outside the shop, the young Taline recalls the period of the year she has always loved the most. “Usually, when Christmas arrived, the house was open to everyone who knocked at our door. People came to our terrace to see the Nativity Square from above. I still remember the scent of the liquor sweets that mom was preparing for the guests, while for us children, there were so many Santa Klaus made of chocolate”. She tells us that in the 7 years in Rome, where she studied architecture and engineering, she felt how important her city was: “when you live 2 minutes away from such an important place, sometimes you do not realise how lucky you are!”. Today, Taline has returned to her land, where she works for the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, but every year in December she returns to Bethlehem.

In this realtime nativity scene we also meet George, manager of the ‘Saint George Bar and Restaurant’. “It’s true, it’s a very difficult time for all of us, but how can I complain – he explains while serving a fragrant Arabic coffee – I love living here, this place smells like Christmas”.

Going down the town, we meet many boys leaving the Terra Sancta School. Among them there is Naila, a woman who really experiences hope. Every day as a social worker of the FSSO (Franciscan Social Service Office), she listens to many people of Bethlehem and transmits the joy of living to them, also thanks to the help provided by the Association pro Terra Sancta. “If you have no hope, you cannot live here!” Naila says. “Given the political and social situation, we do not expect something good every day, but if we only stop at the bad news, we will not be able to move anymore. At home and at work I try to find happiness and hope for a better future. I am a wife, a mother and a sister. I have the responsibility to give hope to my children and to the people next to me and I always remind them to thank God if they can live happily. Hope grows in this period when I can participate the Christmas Novena”.

Naila is going to the Charitable Society of Antoniana, for a Christmas party for the elderly. We follow her. In this house for the elderly in Bethlehem, often abandoned or without health care, there are Marya and Muna. While the first discards the gift she has just received, a beautiful red scarf, Marya repeats her need for “Peace, Peace, Peace, We Need Peace and Freedom”. Marya is a guest of the center and, thanks to the generosity of many benefactors, there are people taking care of her.

We then meet Sister Lisi, walking down the corridors of the centre. “At Christmas some of them will not be able to attend Mass in the Basilica, but we will be here toghether eating and experiencing a great joy”, Sister Lisi continues, while she caresses the other patients in the center and brings them the lunch of the day toghether with a small gift. “Christmas for us is Good News of love that God addresses to every man, with these gestures of love we try to follow that proclamation and to live Christmas every day here in Bethlehem”.