I’ve always wondered what it would be like to commemorate Christmas in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Is it as festive an occasion as in the Western world? I’ve also pondered how a celebration is even possible with the illegal eight-metre high segregation wall that splits Palestine and Israel. This unsightly physical divide creates a rift between communities that is bigger than the 8-metre wall itself and deeper than its concrete foundation.
Exploring the flavours of a Bethlehem Christmas guided me to my Aunt Hilda Lama Zabaneh in Toronto to ask about her memories of growing up in this historical town before Israel captured it in 1967.
“Christmas in Bethlehem was always a precious time filled with devotion and ancient religious customs. I remember all the excitement at Manger Square where the patriarch was received. We would participate in the traditional procession with such innocent excitement; and then attend mid night mass at the Church of St Catherine’s; it was the ultimate festive time. Every Christmas my mother would buy me a new fancy dress just for the occasion. We all loved this time of year, that’s when our little town would truly shine.”
Even though my Aunt Hilda has not returned to her ancestral home in over 30 years, moving away to Canada after getting married, she still holds fond memories of those early years in Bethlehem.
Traditions… Never Forgotten
“We would exchange modest presents only for the children and my mother would prepare a beautiful meal for the whole family. The table was always generous with plenty of foods like lamb, stuffed vine leaves and kubbeh pie. For dessert, there would be knafeh, baklawa and cookies. After lunch, our home would turn into an ‘open house’, with extended family, neighbours and friends, dropping by to wish us a Merry Christmas.”
Now a Canadian citizen, she says she has thought nostalgically of visiting, but hasn’t. “I am concerned to see what has happened to my little town, but it’s with a sense of anticipation mixed with fear. Time is passing and I’ve become busy with my daughters and 8 grandchildren.” Aunt Hilda married my Uncle Kamel who is from Ramleh and soon adjusted to the open Canadian lifestyle. “When I first moved it was the Antiochian “St George Orthodox Church” that connected many members of the Christian Palestinian community in Toronto. I have raised three daughters and have kept certain traditions alive for them. Canada has been good to us but a piece of my heart is still over there in Bethlehem too.”
The Sad Reality
My Aunt has fond memories of Christmas in Bethlehem, but her concern about seeing her ancestral town is well-founded. Like so many others, she would be saddened to see what Christmas is like today with those nasty apartheid prison walls tearing apart the fabric of innocent communities. It’s an understatement to say that life in Bethlehem is difficult now. Tourists can sense the area’s disquieting undertones. They touch upon the holy places in a hurry and don’t spend much money, or support the souvenir stalls. For all its spiritual fervour and historical significance, the place is not much fun to visit these days. Electricity gets cut off constantly and the water is dirty. Getting a permit just to leave and visit Jerusalem, which is only seven miles away, can take months. Palestinians are being forced out, driven away by the languishing degeneration of this most blessed of towns. It’s natural that they are leaving Bethlehem for a better life and soon the little town will be ignored.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.