A Hoptown Chronicle advent story

O Noisy Night: A Christmas observed at the birthplace of Jesus

The scene at Bethlehem's annual Christmas tree ceremony depicts a world full of clamor and constant political tension.

I approach Manger Square, Bethlehem’s main plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity. Usually, this area is not too busy, but tonight is different: It’s the annual Christmas tree ceremony. 

Quenton Brooks
Quenton Brooks

Instead of a silent night, the city is wide awake with thousands of tourists, pilgrims and nationalists. Surrounding the square, merchants sell plastic toys and wooden ornaments. From the stage at the far end of the square, the voices of politicians, guest speakers and bands echo above us. I’m sure everything they say promotes Palestinian heritage and the end of Israel, their Jewish neighbor, but I don’t listen. It’s just clamor. Propaganda.

I expect the politics. Here in the West Bank, everything is political, a constant tension between Israel and Palestine, two nations occupying the same land. The two people groups mean holy sites are often shared by Israeli Jews, Christians Arabs, and Muslim Palestinians simultaneously. Likewise, Christmas is divided between two religions, Christians and Muslims. 

In fact, Palestine is the only Muslim nation that celebrates Christmas as a national holiday. Most of this crowd is Muslim, not Christian. 

Inching my way toward the center of the crowd, I ignore vendors who shout for me to buy corn. Everyone eats corn in this country.

Above us, the tree is covered in lights and topped with a red star. In past years, Christians were shocked that the Palestinian flag was flown over the tree and Nativity Square, a sign of the state’s power over Christianity and Jesus. I don’t see a flag this year, 2016. The city must have learned its lesson. Good.

At the tree’s base, five women in hijabs — Islamic headdresses — take selfies in front of a plastic nativity set. As with Christmas and the land, Jesus is divided by the three Abrahamic faiths. The reason is geographical: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city, so he was Palestinian! That’s why they celebrate Christmas. Furthermore, he was born under Roman occupation, just as they live under Israeli occupation, making him a symbol of resistance. As a rebuttal, Israelis argue Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, with a Hebrew name, “Yeshua,” meaning he wasn’t Palestinian.

And so the arguing continues. 

I look around and soak in the scene. The crowds, speakers, music, vendors, festivities. People drink alcohol even though it’s taboo in Islamic cultures. This is not a church service; it’s a festival. Gone are the solemn, meditative church services pilgrims yearned for, the kind that built Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Back then, no one dared disturb the sacredness of the night. 

As if to insult my yearnings, the band stops playing, and the sounds of fireworks fill the night sky as the crowd cheers. 

I choose to enjoy the show. In actuality, this is the best Christmas I could hope for. Jesus was not born into a picturesque, quiet Bethlehem but a real world full of clamor. The sound of conflicting nations, land disputes and politicians controlling religion: He knew it all. Yet this was the world he came to save.

(Quenton Brooks received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts from Austin Peay State University. He has worked as a tutor and high school teacher, and currently serves as a professor at Hopkinsville Community College. In his spare time, he enjoys writing about the year he spent teaching in Jerusalem and of interfaith relations between Judaism and Christianity. Reach him at qbrooks0006@kctcs.edu)