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Christmas in Bethlehem offers awe-inspiring memories

By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: Bridget Jones is an Auburn Journal reporter. In this column she describes spending Christmas 2009 in the Middle East. In September 2009 I got on a plane and flew half way around the world to Amman, Jordan. I lived in the country for six months with my boyfriend, who was working as a project manager for a non-governmental Czech Republic organization. It was in Amman I got to test my chops as an English teacher for adult students from several Middle Eastern countries. While there is a small Christian population in Jordan, most of its citizens practice Islam. Needless to say, there weren’t many Christmas decorations filling the streets or Christmas carols ringing through the stores. We had a little artificial tree with a few ornaments in our apartment, but it almost felt like Christmas didn’t exist. My Muslim students got a kick out of wishing me “Merry Christmas,” which definitely helped, but my boyfriend and I decided we needed to go somewhere else to feel the holiday spirit. Besides, it’s not every day you can jump on a bus, cross the Israeli border and experience Christmas in the West Bank, specifically Bethlehem. So, we did just that, with a couple of friends in tow. We stayed at the Bethlehem Hotel, which is a good walk away from the birthplace of Jesus in the Church of the Nativity. On Christmas Eve we made a trip to Jerusalem, which is full of breathtaking historical religious sites. Anyone who has visited the Western Wall, where people of the Jewish faith believe creation started, will tell you that there is a definite spiritual feeling there. As you walk up to the wall and see people bowing their heads and sticking little pieces of paper with prayers on them into the wall’s cracks, the feeling overwhelms you. Back in Bethlehem, strolling around helped lift my holiday spirit. There were decorations, and people were already beginning to swarm Manger Square, which sits outside the Church of the Nativity. As dusk fell, the square was glowing with Christmas lights and various groups were singing songs on a stage located near the church. It was easy to tell that people from all over the world had made the journey to Bethlehem, and some of them were anxiously awaiting the midnight mass in St. Catherine’s Church, the Catholic side of the Church of the Nativity. My boyfriend had managed to get three tickets to the mass, and we stood in various stages of the line for hours. The line was akin to waiting to get into a rock concert, but probably not as well organized. Hundreds of people were pushing and shoving to get through the various ticket checking stages, and several times I was sure I would be trampled. Once we got inside it was standing room only. There were a few pews set up for the various dignitaries who arrived, but most people stood or sat on the floor for the approximately two-hour long mass. One dignitary in attendance was Mahmoud Abbas, who officially replaced the late Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian Authority leader in 2005. Anyone who wants to experience a moment where the world feels truly at peace should try to attend this mass at some point. The mass was in more languages than I could count including Arabic, English, German, French and Spanish. Ethnic groups were all greeted in their individual languages as the service began. On Christmas Day we stood in line in the Basilica of the Nativity, the Greek Orthodox side of the church, and admired the ornate ornaments hanging throughout the building. After waiting at least an hour we walked down a narrow flight of stone stairs to the reported birthplace of Jesus Christ. The small area is marked with a gorgeous star that people lean over and touch, or kiss. Visitors also leave money at the site. Touching that star was an awesome experience, although I do not consider myself particularly religious. Our return to Jordan was marked with a bit of comedy as the Israeli border closed earlier than we thought due to the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. So, we spent Christmas night in the little town of Jericho. As I enjoy everything about the American celebration of Christmas this year, I think back to that short time in the holy land and know I won’t ever experience another holiday quite like it.