A Timeless Tradition in a Biblical Town
Hope for peace springs eternal in Bethlehem, a Christian-Arab town caught in an eternally volatile valley. Now overcommercialized, Bethlehem was long the experience of a lifetime for Christians on Christmas Eve, when international choirs filled Manger Square and the importance of being at Jesus’ birthplace caused a real case of goose bumps.
Pilgrims have been drawn to this site for more than sixteen centuries, since A.D. 326, when Queen Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, searched out the grotto of Christ’s birth, now marked by a fourteenpronged silver star.
Completed in A.D. 333, the Church of the Nativity is the oldest surviving church in the Holy Land and one of the most sacrosanct sites in Christianity. It is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian churches, while the adjoining St. Catherine’s Church is under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Franciscan Order.
During less turbulent times, services were traditionally held on December 24 and 25 for Catholics, January 7 for Greek Orthodox, and January 19 for Armenians (these last two change slightly with each year’s calendar). After December 24’s special midnight Mass, Mass-goers lingered in the crowded Manger Square for a lively rendition of “Jingle Bells” and Christmas carols – in Arabic.