We had the great pleasure of enjoying Christmas in July this last summer by visiting ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ in the West Bank. For me, it was the highlight of our two weeks in the Holy Land. Since we are now just a week from Christmas, it would be a perfect time to share some of our experiences there.
Visiting the city is pretty straightforward for Christians hoping to see the Shepherd’s Fields, Church of the Nativity, and Manger Square. You can go there as an easy day trip from nearby Jerusalem, which is just a 20 minute drive. Many tour operators do excursions from Jerusalem and help you pass through the border wall, which is necessary as Bethlehem is in a Palestinian-controlled area.
🐑 We started our visit where the shepherds were “watching their flocks by night”. It is a park area just outside of Bethlehem and maintained by the Catholic Church. There is a small chapel & ancient shepherd’s cave here.
⛪ Above the cave is a Catholic Church commemorating the events here from Christmas Eve over two thousand years ago. Christmas hymns are spontaneously shared by crowds from all over the world.
🎄Manger Square is the center of the old city and the main hub for tourists. These pictures show some of the limestone buildings in the area. You can see that there is a minaret towering over the square, as most of Bethlehem’s 29,000 population is Muslim. Still, much of the town’s economy is based on Christian pilgrims and there are Palestinian Christians living here as well.
⛪ The Church of the Nativity sits on Manger Square. The exterior lacks ornamentation other than a few crosses on the rooftop. It is the oldest continuously-used church in the world and overseen by several different Christian denominations. The door is very low, forcing visitors to bow down as they enter.
⭐️ The sanctuary of the Church is managed by the Greek Orthodox patriarchs and is rich with the smell of incense and hanging candles. It was originally consecrated by the Roman Emperor Constantine”s mother, St Helena, in 327 AD. Beautifully ornate mosaics, statuary, and iconography cover the gold-covered altar.
⭐️⛪️ The place of Jesus’ birth is marked by a shiny silver star under the altar, in an ancient stone cave, or grotto. A stone manger is carved into the grotto, just steps away and covered with a gold screen. It’s an incredibly moving, reverential place steeped in ancient religiosity.
We’ll certainly be thinking about Bethlehem this year as we celebrate Christmas Eve this year. I recently saw an article on FOX News saying that the city is enjoying record tourism this year with the hotels near capacity. The picture I included above is from the FOX twitter feed. You can see Manager Square is decked out with a large Christmas Tree right now and there are thousands of Christian pilgrims visiting.
Image Credits: Manager Square (Fox.com); Collage photography (c) MrFireStation.com