For one month each year, troubles in one of Christianity’s holiest cities are temporarily forgotten as locals and tourists alike are caught up in Christmas festivities.
The town of Bethlehem is over 3,000 years old, and for 2,000 of those years, it has played a central role in the world’s largest religion. According to the Gospels, it was here in the hill country of Judea that Jesus Christ was born, and with him Christianity itself. And so each year on Christmas, thousands of Christians from around the world descend on the birthplace of the man they revere as the son of God.
Bethlehem seems never to have been absent from history. It is first mentioned in ancient Egyptian correspondence, and over the millennia has passed through Canaanite, Israelite, Roman, Muslim, Crusader, Turkish, British, Jordanian, Israeli, and now Palestinian Authority rule. Throughout, it has remained a place of reverence and pilgrimage—especially the Church of the Nativity and nearby Manger Square.
Only six miles from the holy city of Jerusalem, Bethlehem remains a center of Christian pilgrimage, attracting thousands of tourists per year; but the Christmas season is a time unto itself. In the West, Christmas takes place over two days or, at most, a long weekend. But because Western and Eastern denominations celebrate Christmas on different dates, in Bethlehem the holiday is a month-long festival that stretches from the end of December into the first half of January.
Tower photographer Aviram Valdman spent December 24—Christmas Eve for many denominations—in the city, capturing images of both tourists and residents as they celebrated. He found young men dressed as Santa Claus, children eating cotton candy, tourists displaying their joy at the festive occasion, and smiling children and families.
At the same time, however, he saw signs of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the form of a Christmas tree adorned with grenades, bullet fragments, and pictures of terrorist “martyrs.” Palestinian police kept watch as children played with these symbols of war and violence.
Indeed, like most of the region, Bethlehem has been scarred by conflict. Although the numbers are disputed, there is no doubt that the once overwhelmingly Christian town is now approximately 60 percent Muslim, and Christian emigration is extremely high. Many attribute this to the rise of radical Islam and its intolerance of non-Muslim minorities.
On Christmas, however, most of this appears to be momentarily forgotten. Valdman found the people of Bethlehem hospitable and friendly, apparently happy to welcome their most joyous festival and enjoy a moment of peace in an often-volatile region.
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Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower