Christmas in Bethlehem

…Christ was born in Bethlehem

The Christmas Story

Christmas is the day celebrated by millions around the world to commemorate the birth of the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ.  Simply put, without Christ there would be no Christmas.  According to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we have Bethlehem to thank for being the birthplace of Jesus.  These are the only two gospels that mention the birth, and although their accounts differ, they both describe his birthplace as being in Bethlehem.  Although scholars differ on exactly when the birth took place was born, December 25th is commonly recognized and widely celebrated by most Christians around the world as the day Christ was born.  A closer look at the gospels cements what is recognized today as the Nativity Story and gives us further insight into many of the traditions that have come to be associated with the Christmas holiday.  Shepherds, angels, good tidings,  a manger and more appear in the Gospel of Luke while Wise Men, The Christmas Star, gold and frankincense and myrrh appear in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Gospel of Luke

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus’s parents went from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city David, which is called Bethlehem to enroll in the census of AD 6.  At that time, Mary was great with child and gave birth to Jesus while in Bethlehem before the family returned to Nazareth.

After Mary gave birth to Jesus, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  There were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  An angel stood by them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were very afraid.  And the Angel said unto them, ‘be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people.  For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.  And this is the sign unto you; Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest.’

And it came to pass when the angels departed, the shepherds said one to another, Let’s go into Bethlehem, and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And they went quickly to Bethlehem, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger.

The Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew implies the holy family lived in Bethlehem when Jesus was born and later moved to Nazareth.  The gospel states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king and that Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking ‘where is he that is born King of the Jews?  For we saw his star in the East and are come to worship him.’  When Herod heard this he was very troubled and inquired about where the Christ should be born.  The chief scribes and priests investigated and told him in Bethlehem of Judaea.

Herod spoke with the Wise Men privately and asked them when the star had appeared.  He told them to go to Bethlehem and bring word when Jesus was found.  The Wise men went on their way and followed the star which they saw in the East until it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  They went into the house where the star had stopped and saw the young child with Mary, his mother; and they fell down and worshiped him and opening their treasures they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  After this, they were warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, so they departed back to the East by another route.

An angel of he Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take the baby Jesus and his mother and go into Egypt and stay there until the Lord told him to leave because Herod would seek the young child to destroy him.  Joseph went to Egypt where The Holy Family stayed until the death of Herod.

When Herod learned he had been deceived by the Wise Men, he was extremely upset and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and within its borders up to two years old.

When king Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph telling him he was dead and that he could return to the land of Israel.  When Joseph heard Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning over Judaea he was afraid to go and went to Galilee instead and dwelled in a city called Nazareth.

Bethlehem: A very brief history

The city of Bethlehem is home to one of the oldest Christian populations in the world which had dwindled significantly due to emigration, mainly the result of political difficulties.  By some accounts the Christian population may be as low as 10-15% today.  The city has both a long and complicated history of occupations, revolts and uprisings from ancient times and is today a Palestinian city on the West Bank of the Jordan River and home to 30,000 people.  It is considered the hub of Palestinian culture and tourism.

Bethlehem houses the site of The Nativity over which a church was built in 326 when Helena, mother of Constantine visited Bethlehem.  Just over 200 years later the Church of the Nativity was destroyed but soon rebuilt by Roman Emperor Justinian I. Later the Persians invaded Palestine and captured Bethlehem.  A story was later told that the Persians held back from destroying the church when they saw the Magi depicted in Persian clothing in a mosaic.

Christmas in Bethlehem

It’s easy to imagine the sacred traditions that take place during celebrations in Bethlehem to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. Even though the his birth was not considered as significant as his crucifixion some 2000 years ago, where Jesus was born is of great significance to Christians around the globe.  Today, tourism is Bethlehem’s main industry with the Church of the Nativity being the biggest tourist attraction for Christian Pilgrims from around the world. It is a part of what is called Manger Square in the center of the city and is built over a cave or grotto called the Holy Crypt, where Jesus was supposedly born. A silver star beneath the altar in the grotto marks the spot that is believed to be the precise place of the birth.  The Grotto is adorned with lights representing Christ’s birth and decorated with many Christian flags and insignia.

Bethlehem Christmas celebrations and decorations resemble European and North America’s with Christmas lights strung along the streets and a local Christmas market.   There are Christmas Trees, Christmas plays performed in schools and even the occasional reminder that St. Nick has made his way into the celebration by way of red Santa hats worn by children adorned with stars and local Arab men dressed as Santa Claus.  All-in-all, the celebration of Jesus’ birth is both a solemn and joyous occasion with many different Christian cultures and others participating.

The grand celebrations begin on Christmas Eve in the Manger Square where songs of praise are sung by choirs and believers gather from 8 to shortly before midnight.  The procession commences with the entry of the Patriarch of the Latin Catholic Church of Jerusalem , followed by local officials, who is welcomed to the main square by Franciscan Friars to the sound of beating drums.  The procession is led by galloping horsemen on Arabian steeds.  Following them sitting on a dark black mount, is a single horseman carrying a large cross. People crowd doorways and rooftops to watch these solemn displays of reverence.   The procession passes through the streets of Bethlehem to Manger Square and on to The Church of The Nativity. Here the procession enters the church and once inside, an ancient effigy of the Holy Child is placed on the church altar.  Crowds gather to visit the site beneath the altar believed to be the place where Jesus Christ was born.

During Christmas in Bethlehem, crosses are painted above the doors of Christian homes and each home displays a manger scene or crèche.  Celebrations are held on three different dates in Bethlehem:  December 25 is the traditional Roman Catholic and Protestant denomination date of celebration, but Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6 to celebrate Epiphany, and Armenian Orthodox Christians on January 19 according the Julian or Gregorian calendar date observed. Most Christmas processions pass through Manger Square outside of The Basilica of the Nativity.  Roman Catholic services take place in St. Catherine’s Church and Protestants often hold services at Shepherd’s Fields where the angel of the Lord appeared announcing the news of Jesus’ birth.

In Manger Square a star is set upon a pole representing the star that shown in the sky on the night that Christ was born.

This is Christmas in Bethlehem.



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