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Christmas Eve In Bethlehem
by Charles N. Barnard

Standing in front of a TV camera in rainy Bethlehem on that Christmas Eve some years ago, a U.S. network television reporter said what is always said in Manger Square on December 24: "For a few hours each year, this small town and its Church of the Nativity become the center of the Christian world. . . ."

There was often a shortage of peace-on-earth in Israel's West Bank towns on Christmas Eve, but I had never been to Bethlehem, and this seemed the above-all day to go there.

I take my first ride down to Bethlehem from Jerusalem on the afternoon of December 23. I want to see the Church of the Nativity and the crypt where Jesus was born — before tomorrow's Christmas Eve crowds make that impossible. I leave Israel's capital city in a cold rain, driving south on the road that has been here since the Romans. I am with Raphael and Avraham, a Jew and an Arab. Bethlehem is only a few miles distant (the words of the children's carol play back: "How far is it to Bethlehem?"), but progress is slow. We are stopped at several military checkpoints where Israeli soldiers shine flashlight beams in our eyes and then wave us along.

We find a place to park and then duck through the small, low door that is the entrance to the dark Byzantine church on the site where Christ was born. Some young men are polishing brass candlesticks from the altar. We follow stone stairs down to the grotto of the Nativity. The small niche in the craggy stone walls reminds me of a fireplace with a marble hearth. A silver star is attached to the floor. Pilgrims kneel to kiss its shining metal. Candle smoke from many lanterns scents the air, and there is the murmur of prayers.

The crypt — actually a limestone cave — is a close, cluttered space with many mosaics, canopies and other ornaments hanging from the soot-blackened ceiling. It does not bear any resemblance to the barnyard-style mangers we build on church lawns at home.

In St. Catherine's Basilica, connected to the older Church of the Nativity, many TV cameras, lights and cables are already in place for tomorrow night's broadcast of the Mass to the world. We drive back to Jerusalem in the rain.

When I wake on Christmas Eve, there is heavy fog and more rain. We will do some sightseeing early today, then go back to Bethlehem. Impatient, prickly Raphael doesn't think much of the idea in weather like this. "We'll take a quick look," he says. "You'll see. It is the same every year. A sideshow."

But I don't let him talk me out of it. I may be traveling to see an illusion, not a place, but I must see it.

As evening arrives, some of Bethlehem's main streets are decorated with strings of Christmas lights, red, white and yellow. Random spurts of fireworks etch colored arcs across the rain-streaked sky. A helicopter clatters overhead. Checkpoints are numerous as we approach the small, prosperous Arab town. We park and walk the rest of the way uphill toward Manger Square. A sign over a Mexican restaurant says, "We have tacos and hamburgers." The smell of meat frying drifts with the rain. Nasser's Market is brightly lighted and the Classy Lady beauty parlor is doing a big business.

Israeli soldiers line the streets in full combat gear: helmets, radios, live ammunition, many types of weapons. As we approach the square, I hear traditional English Christmas carols coming from a public address system.

""We Three Kings of Orient Are. . . ."

I walk into Manger Square at last, a gently tilted black-topped rectangle, about 200 by 300 feet. It is brightly lighted by many lines of colored bulbs which wheel-spoke out from a tall pole at the square's center. Strings of plastic pennants also radiate from the pole. With all the lights and flags, it could be an American used-car lot on a rainy night.

A few hundred people are walking around under various styles of head covering: cowboy Stetsons, red-checked kafiehs, the pointed hoods of Franciscan monks, police helmets, priests' flat-brimmed clerical hats, many umbrellas.

"The First Noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. . . ."

Raffie and Avraham find shelter, friends and hot coffee in the local tourist office at the top end of the square. I am supposed to take a look around and check back with them in half an hour. "You will see enough," says Raffie. It is barely 8:00.

One side of the square is occupied by a long arcade where there are several souvenir shops, a Barclay's Bank ("open until midnight"), some places to eat and drink at sidewalk tables. This area gives shelter and attracts most of the people in the square on this wet night. On the opposite side, a 30-foot cypress tree is decorated for Christmas. It has many lights and a large red star at the top with a comet's tail. Other tree ornaments have been contrived from beach balls, teddy bears, soccer balls and plastic toys.

Next to the tree, the Christmas Tree Cafe is a busy, brightly-lighted eatery enveloped in swirling clouds of pungent blue smoke; it cooks and serves falafel, hummus, kebabs and fish. A Japanese TV crew invades the place with blinding lights, a camera and a demanding director. "Slice this! Cook that! Serve here!" Patrons lean leering faces into picture range and wave.

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly, 'tis the season to be jolly. . . ."

The police station completes the far side of the square. A large rectangle of canvas has been hung on its outside wall. A western movie with Hebrew and Arabic subtitles — no sound — is being projected onto this rain-blotched screen. A posse gallops silently through sunny, dry Arizona. A few Arab youngsters stand near the video projector and watch the action.

In the human jam under the arcade, a young man and woman set up shop on the sidewalk by placing a broad plank atop a barrel. They have a ragged stack of unframed, oil-on-canvas landscapes to sell. As customers shuffle through the pile, the canvases stick to each other and give off the scent of fresh paint.

Souvenir shops display the full array of credit-card decals. The Holy Lands Art Museum, for one, sells manger scenes carved from olive wood, also the Last Supper in mother-of-pearl and figures of Christ on the cross installed within bottles of "holy water" from the River Jordan. Business is slow; most customers come into the stores just to get warm.

Many young Arab boys, ages 8 to 10, work their way through the crowds selling candy bars from shoe boxes. They are persistent gamins, clutching sleeves and not letting go. I see one lad being hauled off by a policeman. The kid's small face is screwed up in pain and anger, but he is too tough to cry.

I decide to send some postcards. Signs in the square point the way to a basement post office. It will be open until midnight to receive mail for a "Bethlehem December 25" postmark. There are six windows where stamps are sold and several salesmen who have set up tables to display cards and envelopes. I scribble off a few words to friends at home.

Singing and instrumental groups from all over the world have been invited to perform in the square from 8:00 until midnight. An outdoor stage is set up, but the 15-minute performances are done in the shelter of the arcade. One group of young American Baptists holds an impromptu sing-along while waiting. "Jesus is coming, Sing Hallelujah!" At first they have only three guitars to accompany the voices, then trombones and trumpets arrive. "We're just a bunch of believers here to sing for the Prince of Peace," one young man explains sincerely.

Under the arcade, more singers and musicians gather. I hear the tinkling of a tambourine, like small bells in the distance. Choruses of Christmas songs are projected bravely into the gusty rain. "The Holly and the Ivy. . . What Child is This?"

A would-be "holy man" makes his appearance wearing a long homespun robe, New Balance sneakers, a striped shawl around his shoulders, a white turban on his head. He has a full beard and carries a shepherd's staff. He wanders through the crowd as if resurrected from biblical times and stops to talk with any who will listen.

Kafiehs — wound defiantly around head and neck, tassels dangling — are very much the macho uniform for the young Arab toughs. Some wind the checkered cloth high over their nose so only two dark eyes look out. It is the face of trouble on the West Bank this year — it is the face of the youngster who, assuming a quick, combat-style crouch, momentarily blocks my way. "I am Arafat," he says. Then he whirls and is gone, his statement made, his manhood confirmed.

Most of the Israeli soldiers look very young and very bored with tonight's duty. I see one sit briefly on a sidewalk chair with his automatic rifle across his lap and a walkie-talkie on one knee. A happy, zealous group of Americans is singing nearby. "He's got the whole world in his hands. . . he's got the whole world in his hands. . . he's got the whole wide world in his hands. . . " The song drowns out the frying, squawking voices on the soldier's military radio. He gets up and moves farther away.

I walk into a gift shop where a recording of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is playing over and over. The Arab shopkeeper sings along for the amusement and attention of customers in the store. "O little town of Bethlehem, we still see thee lie. . . (sic). . . Above thy deep and dreamy sleep (sic), the silent ships (sic) go by. . ."

The performance does little to help business. The man interrupts after each chorus with the usual shopkeeper's imprecations. "Look around, my friend, all cheap. . . " Or to ask, "Where are you from? America?"

By 10 o'clock the square is beginning to fill with larger crowds. (Raffie had said the total reached 10,000 in earlier years.) I watch a Franciscan heading for the church in the rain, a black silhouette against the shining pavement, pointed hood pulled up, robes almost sweeping the ground, the two white cords of his knotted belt swinging with every stride. TV crews are working in yellow foul-weather suits, their equipment sheltered in plastic. They interview giggling girls, drunks, people wearing choir robes, anyone who is black.

There is a police bomb-disposal truck parked just off the square on a side street. It carries an armored steel sphere with a small door that can be opened and closed by remote control. A policeman sits at the wheel all night with the engine running. There will be no bombs.

After 10, I decide to check on Raffie. He is warm and dry in the tourist office — but he is upset with me. "Haven't you seen enough?" he asks. "Two hours!" I remind him that Christmas doesn't arrive until midnight, and then I go out again to watch the show.

There are a growing number of characters floating around the square in bizarre costumes as the night goes on. One young man wears a Union Jack as a shawl. Groups of international youths appropriate sidewalk tables and refuse to give them up as their cliques and retinues grow. The condition of the girls' draggled hair becomes worse as the rain turns curls into strings or corkscrews. A couple of young women smoke cigars and blow smoke at the TV cameras.

"Don we now our gay apparel. . .troll the ancient Yule-tide carol. . . ."

Umbrellas, shiny and black under the lights, move across the square in pairs and groups, looking like migrations of huge mushrooms. One young couple hugs and touches noses under a single umbrella which they hold overhead with their four hands clasped together.

By 10:30, the candy-bar kids are mostly sold out. One of the more enterprising comes back soon enough, however, with an Adidas shoe box full of loose chocolates. These local boys, mostly Christian Arabs, become more fiercely territorial as the night grows late. They stake out proprietary areas of the square. A newcomer entering their space is kicked, punched, threatened and driven off — but his candy is never touched.

"Joy to the world, the Lord is come. . . . "

By eleven, the crowd is becoming conspicuously drunk in some areas and a few of the shopkeepers pull down corrugated steel shutters to protect storefront windows from lurching, staggering bodies and shoving matches. A stomping, chanting circle of young Germans exude both threat and power; they ignore an elderly Arab's plea to move away from the entrance to his shop so customers may enter. Music from the visiting choirs, nearly continuous, is being drowned out now. When altercations break out, there is the sound of steel chairs screeching on stone floors and glass breaking.

Several dark-eyed men stand under the arcade, eating pistachio nuts. They have black, turned-down moustaches, and they spit empty nut shells into the square like contemptuous political statements. They may be plainclothes police — they often exchange looks of recognition with those in uniform. Nothing must happen tonight to mar peace in Manger Square. "The whole world (TV) is watching. . . . "

In front of the Church of the Nativity, at the low end of the square, long lines of ticket holders are forming. They have reserved for the midnight mass months, even a year, before. They will pass through several checkpoints before they get in. One young man stands near the place where the ticket holders go through the first security post. He holds a hand-lettered sign which says, "I look for 1 TICKET. . . . "

A young woman wearing an Elvis button says to no one in particular, "I'd rather be a street person tonight than a basilica person. Once they let you into heaven, you can't get out. . . "

"Go tell it on the mountain. . . . "

I return to the post office to get warm. An adjacent room has six telephone booths. A sign on the wall says it is possible to make collect and credit-card calls as well as direct dial. There are lines of young people waiting to call home. The scent of marijuana is as unmistakable as the odor of a stable. Beer cans roll and spin on the floor. Some youngsters are already asleep on their backpacks. The six postal clerks look tired and bored.

Two ambulances are stationed at the upper end of the square, parked side by side. One moves out on a call, inching its way through the crowds, the rotating dome light washing the surrounding faces in a pulsing red glow. A man has cut his hand on a bottle.

Visiting choirs assemble in the square before being introduced to sing. A group from the Forest Hills Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, wears beige robes with red surplices. They huddle under umbrellas until called. Several want this American to know that tonight in Bethlehem is the biggest thing they've ever done, "ever, ever." One woman says, "Just think, to be here after singing about this place for all these years. . . . "

A choir from Reykyavik, Iceland, marches into the square wearing long, sky-blue robes. Their angular Nordic faces and blond hair seem out of place. They are followed by a Swedish choir, dressed in black, the women wearing long black skirts with vivid colored stripes. Each carries a lighted candle in one hand, sheltering the flame with the other.

Suddenly, as the Swedes finish singing, the first chanted phrases of the Latin mass — clear, pure and strong — take possession of the square. A new image flickers on the TV screen. Catholic prelates in white lace and scarlet silks replace the Arizona cowboys. The crowd is silenced, at least momentarily. Smoke swirling from barbecues still sweetens the air, but the milling of people slows. All are turned toward the new pictures on the police station wall as if drawn by the sight of a messiah.

Choir voices broadcast from within the basilica now accompany the picture. The Swedes' candles disappear from sight one by one as the words of a priest fall down from many outdoor speakers like the word of God.

"Gloria in excelsis. . . . "

I look at my watch. It is midnight. It is Christmas again.


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