The ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree in Bethlehem was expected to be so popular this year that the city authorities planned to stage it twice, to better accommodate the crowds.

Now, Bethlehem will have no Christmas tree at all. The Palestinian hilltop town, considered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, is in mourning, devastated by the human toll of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Out of respect, festivities in Bethlehem have been called off — for the first time in the town’s memory.

“We’re not celebrating,” said Majed Ishaq, a member of the town’s Palestinian Christian community, whose extended family of several hundred people would normally gather at this time of year to eat together, exchange gifts, play games and dress up as Santa Claus. 

“There’s a huge pain in our hearts, so we can’t — we’re not ready to see a tree or any kind of decoration,” said Ishaq. He works for the town’s government and is waiting for news on friends trapped in the besieged enclave.

“I don’t know if they’re alive or not.”

For residents of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, the death and destruction just 70km away in Gaza has meant that the usual Christmas festivities feel hollow and out of place. More than 20,000 people have been killed in the enclave since the war began, according to Palestinian officials.

The grotto of Jesus’s birth last December, above, and this December © Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Manger Square on western Christmas Eve last year, above, and last Wednesday © Hazem Bader/AFPGetty Images

“We’re in a state of war and we’re all thinking of what’s happening in Gaza,” said Munther Isaac, a pastor at one of the city’s churches.

The war in Hamas-controlled Gaza was launched in response to the October 7 attack by the militant group on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Rev Isaac has been supporting members of his congregation who have lost relatives in the shelling, visiting their homes and talking about their grief during mass.

To reflect their reality, he has set up a different sort of Nativity scene in his church this year: the same, traditional model of a baby Jesus, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, shepherds and flock. But the manger is now made out of a pile of broken concrete and bricks. 

It is “Jesus under the rubble”, he said, explaining that the set up echoed the images of children trapped under collapsed buildings in Gaza, which Bethlehem’s residents see daily on the news. 

‘Jesus under the rubble’ The Nativity scene at the Lutheran church in Bethlehem shows a baby wrapped in a keffiyeh and placed in a pile of rubble to show solidarity with the people of Gaza © Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Normally packed full of tourists and pilgrims in the Christmas season, strewn with fairy lights and filled with market stalls and choirs, Bethlehem now stands empty and quiet.

The holy-icon centre, nativity museum and almost all venues catering to religious tourists are shut. On the narrow streets around the central Manger Square, most of the shops selling Christian trinkets have been closed. 

The absence of tourists will take a heavy poll on the city’s businesses, according to Ishaq, who works in the tourism ministry. More than 8,500 families rely on the many visitors the town attracts for their livelihoods. 

In the first nine months of this year, 1.5mn tourists visited Bethlehem, he said. But shortly after October 7, “it went down to zero. Really zero.” Without visitors to its holy sites, the city is now losing $1.5mn in revenue a day, he added.

After the outbreak of war, tourists fled so fast, one local tour guide said, that some even left behind their suitcases. Within two days, his entire calendar of bookings had been cancelled. Now, most flights to Israel have been axed and Israel has increased restrictions on travel in the West Bank. The main route to Bethlehem is often closed.

Rony Tabash, who runs The Nativity Store, one of the few Bethlehem tourist shops still open, said “not a single person has bought anything” from his premises for three months. “I feel a big responsibility,” he said, sitting in a nearby coffee shop, dealing with one crisis after another on his phone. “The shop is for the whole family.”

The yuletide season would, in peacetime, take over two full months of city life, with Christmas celebrated three times over the course of the winter, since different denominations mark the event on different days. Now, only the religious services themselves will be held. 

GM231222_23X West Bank-Bethlehem map

Tabash normally spends the season in the store, as so much work needs to be done. Since the war began, he has only kept the doors open in honour of his grandfather. “It’s his 60th Christmas in the shop. He’s 80. We couldn’t just close.” 

In a small Christian Sunday school in the centre of Bethlehem, a flurry of pre-school children ran around assembling a small, plastic Christmas tree. Abeer, a mother of three, said the parents had agreed to create a little seasonal joy for the children, because “they’re innocent”. They would be careful to set the tree far away from the window, so as not to offend. 

Though she was trying to shelter her children from the violent images of war, Abeer said they still felt some of the fear. “My eldest sleeps in my bed since October 7. Sometimes she gets up and says she dreamt her school was being bombed,” Abeer said. “We don’t feel anything this Christmas.”

It is not just the war in Gaza that has shaken Bethlehem. The West Bank has also come under strain, with attacks by Israeli settlers and raids by the military that have killed more than 270 Palestinians in two months. 

Bethlehem residents described Israeli forces entering and patrolling the town after dark and making arrests. Last week, Palestinian authorities said Israeli forces shot and killed a 16-year-old boy in Husan, a village near Bethlehem. Israel said it was investigating an incident in which its soldiers responded to stone-throwing and firebombs with live fire.

The city blames “the leaders of the war” on all sides for the unfolding tragedy, said Father Rami Asakrieh, the Latin [western Catholic] parish priest of Bethlehem, sitting in his office inside the Nativity Church complex. 

The Hamas assault, which Israel’s leaders have described as the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust, was not welcomed in Bethlehem, Asakrieh said. “Nobody supports the violence and the killing.”

Some may “support gestures that signal liberation from years of persecution, the return of rights and so on”, he said, but not when these led to the deaths of innocent people.

On Christmas Eve, Asakrieh will lead mass in the Milk Grotto, one of the city’s most revered sites which is believed by Christians to be where Jesus and his parents hid during a massacre, and survived.

While his ceremony will focus on hope, the priest fears that the deep trauma that this war has created will only breed more violence. “We need a miracle,” he said. 

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