Thalathe…’ithnin… wahad…(three, two, one …) and magically the big Christmas tree in Manger square, Bethlehem, lights up; fireworks light up the starry sky and for five minutes all the faces of the people are turned upwards: many children climb on their parents’ shoulders to be able to see better, boys and adults with smartphones in hand take back this show to be able to keep the memory after returning home.
The thousands of people filling the square and the balconies of the surrounding houses have all arrived in Bethlehem to witness the ignition of the tree, at the beginning of the Advent. “We at Bethlehem expect this moment with great trepidation, it is a way to remind us how lucky we are to be born in the place where one night changed the world” tells us George, an old man who gladly exchanges a few words with us.
There are not only people from Bethlehem, but also many Christians from the Palestinian Territories and Israel participate at this moment: “We have come with our family from Nazareth, every year we come to feel more intensely the spirit of Christmas and share it with our friends and relatives. We are Christians, we like being here and this year is even more special “. Diana with a smile points to Shireel, her daughter of just two months wrapped in heavy blankets resting in the stroller. “It makes me shiver to think that our Savior, instead, was born right here in the cold, in a cave”.
But the ignition of the Christmas tree is not just a feast for Christians, among the impatient crowd there are also many Muslims from Bethlehem and from neighboring countries: “I come from East Jerusalem” Ahmad, a boy in his twenties, “I am a Muslim, but I have come every year to share the celebrations with my Christian brothers, we are in company, it is a way to be more united among us Palestinian Arabs and love us”. The spirit of sharing is even stronger in this land where Christians and Muslims have learned to know each other and respect each other: in fact, we should not be surprised if the Christmas carols that animate the square waiting for the ignition stop for a few minutes to leave echo the call of the muezzin of the Mosque of Omar which is on the opposite side of the Basilica of the Nativity.
Many foreigners were present at the ceremony: Brazil, China, Canada, Germany are just some of the nationalities of the many tourists and pilgrims present in Bethlehem to rediscover the roots of Christianity. There are also volunteers who give time and energy to the many charities present in the area to help the elderly, children and the disabled, the three most disadvantaged categories in a difficult daily reality.
“As an Italian I am used to seeing Christmas in a more Nordic setting, sometimes we forget that the place where Christmas came true is between the palms and not the mistletoe and the firs, the celebrations are not made of songs in English or Italian, but in Arabic, “says Federica, a volunteerwho has been working with ATS pro Terra Sancta for several months and certainly did not want to miss this date.
It is this atmosphere of joy and celebration that colors Bethlehem, in the place where the Word was made flesh, and brings us closer to Christmas, a fact that illuminates the world of hope.
Source: Pro Terra Sancta