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“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a popular hymn that’s regularly sung by Christians during the Christmas season. After all, Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus.
Located in the central West Bank, Palestine, just south of Jerusalem in the Middle East, Bethlehem has become a popular tourist destination. Especially at Christmastime. It’s even referred to as “Christmas City” and visitors can enjoy a great light show at this time of year to add to the overall effect.
Furthermore, the Roman Catholics’ Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world from here every year. However, whether you’re a Christian or not, I feel that Christmas in Bethlehem is worth a visit.
The Biblical Story of Bethlehem
Many of us know the Biblical story of how Caesar Augustus decreed that a census must be taken and that all people in the Roman world had to return to their own town to register. Joseph, being of the line of David, was required to take his pregnant wife, Mary, and go to Bethlehem for this registration.
Because of the census, Bethlehem was extremely crowded, so they were unable to find a room at an inn. Subsequently, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a lowly stable and both shepherds and wise men came to worship the Christ-child.
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem’s most popular tourist attraction, is said to stand on the very spot where Jesus was born. This magnificent church has now replaced that lowly stable from the bible. Plus, the very place of the manger is now marked by a 14-point silver star named the Star of Bethlehem.
A church has been located on this very spot since the 4th century, when the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine, built a chapel here. Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by Emperor Justinian back in the 6th century. It replaced Constantine’s structure.
Over the following years and centuries, there have been many changes, including the size of the entrance doorway. It used to be so large that a visitor could ride into the church on horseback. Alternately, a looter could simply bring in a cart to load up with valuables.
However, this entrance has now been reduced to a height of just over a meter. Therefore, I had to bend down significantly to enter the church. I believe that this act of bowing down to enter the church seems to add to the sanctity of the place. For Christians, it may act as a reminder of how God humbled himself to become man.
Inside the Church of the Nativity
In the church’s cool, dark interior, I saw that the main Basilica of the Nativity was designed like a typical Roman basilica. There are five aisles formed by Corinthian columns, with an apse at the eastern end that contained the sanctuary.
Additionally, there were several ancient icons and wall mosaics, including renditions of the Virgin Mary and numerous angels. Plus, there were atmospheric chandeliers, lanterns, and crosses.
I also observed an Altar of the Kings, an Altar of the Virgin and a Chapel of the Nativity. There was even an opening in the floor that allowed visitors to see mosaics of Emperor Constantine’s original church. In the south transept, I found a finely carved doorway that led me down to the Grotto of the Nativity. This is said to be the actual birthplace of Christ.
This sacred grotto is naturally of great religious significance to the Christian faith making it the major highlight of any visit here. It’s considered to be the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity.
As I descended into the Grotto of the Nativity, it was difficult to take in much of my surroundings for there was such a large crowd all wanting to get into that very place. Patience was a necessity here.
Christmas in Bethlehem: Manger Square
Named after the “manger” where Christ was born, this busy square serves as a social center for Bethlehem and a traditional spot for the singing of Christmas carols by both locals and tourists. You’ll also find a gigantic Christmas tree here as the focal point for Bethlehem’s Christmas celebrations.
The main attraction in this square is the Church of the Nativity. However, next to it you’ll find the Chapel of Saint Catherine, where a flight of steps leads down into a cave system.
You’ll also find several restaurants and souvenir shops in the square. Some are appropriately named streets leading into the square, including “Star” and “Nativity”.
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto of Our Lady
Nearby is a chapel that was built on the spot where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid from Herod’s soldiers at the time of the “Massacre of the Innocents”. The family eventually fled into Egypt. One story has it that a drop of Mary’s milk fell on the floor of the cave in which they were hiding and turned its color white.
The Israeli West Bank Wall
As I entered/left Bethlehem, I encountered the controversial wall. This wall was built by Israelis as a temporary security measure at a time of heightened tension between Israelis and Palestinians. This barrier wall has drawn criticism from many human rights groups, but it’s still a reality for the residents of Bethlehem.
Near Bethlehem, I visited the village of Beit Sahour. This is where the shepherds were told of the birth of Christ while attending their sheep. They then went to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child for themselves.
There’s a shepherd fountain on site, the ancient fields themselves and the Church of Shepherds’ Field. The church resembles the structure of a shepherd’s tent. Inside this beautiful church, I found a mural of the shepherds hearing the good news of the birth of Christ.
The hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, was written in the 19th century by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, after he visited Bethlehem. At the time of this composition, he was the pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The hymn has remained popular to this very day.
For More Information: www.bethlehem-city.org/en
Author’s Bio: John is a freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys travelling the world and writing about his adventures. He has written weekly travel features for a group of community newspapers, presented several travelogues, and is the author of two major cycling books: “Cycling Canada” and “Cycling the USA”