Checking out of my hostel the morning of Christmas Eve was a bit of an ordeal. When I had arrived at the hostel the night before they didn’t honor my reservation. He said my reservation was for a “mattress on the roof” (not what I reserved on the website) and since it was raining that night all those reservations were no longer good.
Not that the situation was SO bad, turns out I had the opposite problem of Mary and Joseph: instead of giving me the stables he put me up in a private room (which only cost four times the price). Also turns out the private room was a complete dump so I decided to not stay there another night like I had planned.
Anyways, my friend Tomasz was all in favor of leaving without telling the owner we were doing so (on the grounds the hostel guy would try getting more money out of us) but I went ahead and checked out notwithstanding.
Turns out Tomasz was right, the guy wasn’t happy and went off on me for “cancelling my reservation” and said now he wouldn’t be able to sell that room for the next night and I needed to pay more. Of course this was all hogwash and I ended up just walking out of his office with a, “Thanks for your business.”
Anyways, with that unpleasant business done, we were off to Bethlehem!
Off to Bethlehem!
Three of us went: myself and two other volunteers from Nir Oz: Tomasz (a Pole) and Merle (a German). The walk to Bethlehem was about six miles.
As we marched along, it was interesting to think of Mary and Joseph taking that same walk on the 8th day of Jesus’ life to dedicate their baby at the temple.
Halfway there, we passed a young shepherd by the side of the road watching a small flock of sheep on a hill. We decided we needed a break so climbed the hill, said “Hi” to the shepherd, and sat down to eat some snacks.
I think we all thought it was quite funny to actually see sheep and a shepherd in this otherwise developed area. 2,000 years and some things haven’t changed!
The shepherd had a straight stick instead of one with a “crook” in the end (which I thought was regulation shepherd equipment) but Tomasz said this was because of animal rights concerns over inhumane treatment. I think he was pulling my leg and theorized shepherds had just finally run out of crooked sticks.
Here are some pictures of the sheep and us resting:
After our rest…. onward we marched, finally reaching the checkpoint between Israel and the Palestinian controlled West Bank. Here is a picture of the wall separating the two lands:
The checkpoint was painless, we just walked through! Not what I was expecting… the pedestrian entrance was even practically deserted. I think most people enter via taxi or bus, not walking.
Inside the West Bank the first thing that happened was we got assailed by taxi drivers wanting our business. One guy was quite persistent and followed us about 100 yards heckling us the whole way, saying it was much too far to walk and we HAD to have a taxi. Little did he underestimate our hearty constitutions.
Finally we shook him off by repeatedly saying, “No!”
The next thing I noticed (besides Israeli soldiers swarming the place) was all the graffiti on the dividing wall between Israel and the West Bank. There is tons of it, as far as the eye can see. It is quite sad…
Here is a sampling of some graffiti:
After asking a group soldiers for directions, we headed towards Bethlehem. I knew we were getting close when I saw this sign:
As we neared “Bethlehem Square,” (the focal point of festivities) the crowds moving down the street become dense. At the worst part we were merely shuffling along in a tight sea of humanity. This next picture was taken where the street widened out and wasn’t so crowded, but you can still see there were a lot of people (I was standing on a box):
At the entrance to Old Town Bethlehem there is an arch we went under that is supposedly the same arch Mary and Joseph walked under. It probably isn’t, but they would have likely walked on this same spot of ground anyways.
I did see the Bethlehem Inn. No doubt the same one Mary and Joseph were turned away from:
Here’s a picture of a street leading up to the Church of the Nativity (it’s the Church with the high steeple):
Inside the Church of the Nativity is the supposed spot where Jesus was born. There are golden “baubles” all over and it seems anything but “humble,” which seems more descriptive of how Jesus came to earth.
I didn’t actually see the Nativity Cave because the line there was enormously long and I figured I could always see the picture on Wikipedia later (which I did, and you can too here).
In the “trap-doors” in the picture above you can see mosaics below from the original floor. This Church of the Nativity was commissioned back in the olde days by Constantine himself (or his mother or something) and finished in 333 AD. It is about the oldest Christian church in the world still going.
Here is a close-up of the mosaics from the original floor. Weird to think of Constantine (and Crusaders like perhaps Richard the Lionhearted) walking on this very floor.
The church appeared to be non-Protestant. I thought the nuns and monks were interesting. The picture below of the Monk checking his cell-phone is a real sign of the times, methinks.
The Church of the Nativity has seen a lot of violence, even recently. Check out this headline from just yesterday:
“Clashes between holy men erupt inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. About 100 priests and monks from the Greek and Armenian churches, armed with brooms, came to blows whilst cleaning the church in preparation for Orthodox Christmas celebrations…”
You can watch the video of them fighting here.
This type of bickering seems to exhibit the typical attitude I see of “religion” here in Israel, more legalistic than “of the heart.” This particular case of monks fighting with brooms gives Christianity a bad name. Whatever happened to, “Turn the other cheek?”
There has been other recent fighting at this church as well. I saw a Youtube video of Palestinians holed up in the church exchanging fire with Israeli troops this past August. The monks were bringing out casualties on stretchers. I guess they can be nice sometimes.
Anyways, after meandering around Bethlehem for awhile, eating our sack lunches in the square (and buying some local tea from a young Palestinian Boy), we decided to walk out to this place called, “Shepherds Fields.”
While no one knows exactly which hill the Shepherds were on when the angels appeared to them, these hills are typical and in the near vicinity.
We had a hard time finding the Shepherds fields. On the edge of town we stopped at a street corner to consult our guide-book. There was a small grocery store there and this lady was loading groceries into her car. She asked us what we were looking for so we told her. “Oh, I live right by them!” After consulting her husband (who was in the drivers seat), she told us to pile in and they’d drive us. They were the friendliest people, and after pointing out their house as we passed by they dropped us off at the “Shepherds Fields.” I think the couple were Christians because 1) they had a sticker of a cross on their car and 2) they wished us Merry Christmas.
What we saw when we reached the Shepherds Fields was pretty exotic: a group of Japanese tourists. This was entertaining, though not exactly what I was expecting.
I did get this picture of the surrounding scenery:
After reading the section of the angels appearing to the shepherds from Luke chapter 2, we headed back (walking) to Bethlehem. Upon arriving we were wiped out so stopped to eat some food and take a break.
Visiting Israel and historic spots is interesting because – while I’m trying to savor the history – I’m also having my own adventures in the present and dealing with mundane things like hunger and feet being so tired they feel as if they’re about to fall off. Maybe Mary and Joseph were hungry and tired and rode into town on a rainy night too?
Anyways, after a break we decided to head back to Manger Square to see what it looked like at night.
I noticed this (ironic) sign on our way back:
Manger Square was sort of a mad-house. Here is a picture and video I took:
It started raining and we needed to get back to Jerusalem. While walking out we passed a Lutheran church offering free “Glühwein.” Not much of an attraction to me, but my German compatriot was excited as this is traditional Christmas beverage in Deutschland.
Turns out the Lutheran Church was also getting ready to start an evening Carol service, so we attended that as well! This was quite nice and almost made me feel back at home. A young group of Palestinian locals from that church sang carols they had practiced. It wasn’t professional, but that made it seem more authentic (and like home). All the songs were in Arabic (which was different) and a couple of the carols were even in an Arabic style. The whole show was so pleasant I fell asleep at the end.
Next we headed back to “The Wall.” It was raining in earnest now, and we were freezing. A funny memory I have of that day is walking along in the rain in the dark along this graffiti-covered wall (on the Palestinian side) singing Christmas Carols with Merle (she singing in German while I in English). A very random Christmas Eve!
At the checkpoint there was not a soul to be seen. There were some eight entry lines and after some looking we found one manned by an Israeli soldier… who didn’t seem too attentive, we walked straight through. I think we looked pretty touristy. And wet.
Then we waited in the rain a long time to be picked up by a friend of a friend (super nice Israeli man – worked in the Department of Education of Jerusalem or something) who let us crash at his flat (they call apartments over here “flats”). I can’t even remember his name now, but he was extremely hospitable giving us coffee, dessert, dry clothes, and had everything set up for our sleeping quarters – he even left us the key to his place when he left for work the next morning! His apartment was so nice it was hard leaving.
So that was my Christmas Eve in a nutshell. Or a 50-gallon drum.