Bethlehem: Christmas, then and now (Christmas in the Holyland)
Numerous texts and scripts, including the gospels in the Bible, have placed Bethlehem as one of the most important places in the Christian world, primarily because this is traditionally the place where Jesus was born. Placing Bethlehem as the approximate area known to be where Jesus was born, the precise date is still up for debate by scholars and experts even up to this day, but still traditionally celebrated on December 25, Christmas Day. When visiting or making a tour to the Holy Land, Israel in particular, it is a must that you visit Bethlehem.
Bethlehem as a name
Derived from the Arabic phrase Bayt Lahm, which means “House of Meat”, and Jewish phrase Bet Lehem, which means “House of Bread” – Bethlehem was known centuries ago as a place where sheep, goats, lamb and other animals are tended, due to its grassy and hilly features. The animals were used for food (meat) and to operate machineries like grinders to make bread, hence the terms House of Meat and Bread. In the modern times, Bethlehem is filled with houses, Catholic and Christian churches, restaurants and sovenir shops, but still retains its name.
Location and Geography
Bethlehem is located 10 Kilometers south of Jerusalem and about 30 Kilometers west of the Dead Sea. Contrary to popular belief, it is part of the country Palestine, and not Israel. If you are driving from Jerusalem, it would take less than an hour to reach Bethlehem, but during the time of Jesus, his parents may have taken less than half a day walking. Typical topography of Bethlehem is hilly or filled with small mountains. Since centuries ago, and up to this day, animals still graze on pastures and hills around the city.
More than 2 centuries ago, Bethlehem was just an animal grazing town, filled with hills and caves that served as stables or mangers. Nothing much changed after Jesus was born there, and even after his death in Jerusalem 33 years later. On the year 330 AD, during the Crusades, the great Roman Emperor Constatine I found Bethlehem and built the Church of the Nativity. With that development, more stone houses were built around the church. After the Crusades and several wars, the church was damaged and reconstructed several times until finally, in the modern times, the church was preserved and the city flourished.
At the borders between Bethlehem and Israel is a wall, standing 8 meters tall and surrounds the whole city. Bethlehem, including other Palestinian cities bordering Israel, have this kind of wall as part of Israel’s counter terrorism measures, but Palestine thinks of it as a discrimination and racism. But overall, visiting Bethlehem is safe and a lot of people believe it will remain that way for centuries to come as it houses one of the most important places for Christians, and they will do their best to keep the peace in preserving the birthplace of Jesus.
Christmas in Bethlehem
As accounted by gospels in the Bible, the first Christmas started with the difficult journey of a couple who had to look for a place to stay as the mother is about to deliver her baby. Joseph, who brought his wife, Mary, to Jerusalem on a Census period, cannot find any accommodations. The inns were all fully booked! So they travelled to the nearest town and take their chances there, which happens to be Bethlehem. Since this is a farming town, there were no inns, and the only place they could stay were where the animals stayed for the night – the caves in the hills. After being able to settle in one, Mary delivered the baby Jesus and placed him on a manger – a box where dried grass are placed for food for the animals.
Today, being an important place for all Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, including other Christian denominations, Christmas day in Bethlehem brings a huge gathering of the faith. A mass is celebrated in the Church of the Nativity at almost every hour in different language and different Christian faith. The number of people reaches more than a thousand and pilgrims are even standing outside of the church, and through the streets, for hours. During this time, like the first Christmas, all hotels in Bethlehem and most of Jerusalem, are fully booked. Since this celebration is always done in December, the weather is cold, but not freezing, despite being in a semi-desert country. The elevation of the city gives crisp, cool air which adds into the wonderful spirit of Christmas.
As mentioned then, in the bible, and to this day, Bethlehem is filled with hills, so the best time to visit is now, when you are still fit and can walk hundreds of meters, either uphill or downhill. Most of the places to visit in Israel are located either on top of a hill or a mountain, with minimal vehicular access, hence the importance of your physique during the trip. Despite all these, many believe in the miracles that happen to them during or after visiting the Holyland. Some who had asthma or heart problems have made it through the trip.