When I tell people I hiked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, many envision a fantastical expedition through the Judean desert. Like some Biblical scene of old. In reality, it is nothing like that.
Despite its history, Christmastime in the Holy City was relatively uneventful. We had always heard Bethlehem was the place to be on Jesus’s birthday, which of course makes sense considering it’s said to be his birthplace. We were told there was something elaborate going on in the main square, even the President of Palestine would be there.
So we made off. With eggnog in hand, a small group of friends and I departed downtown Jerusalem two and half hours before the clock struck midnight. It only took twenty or so minutes to reach the end of Jerusalem’s city center, the sprawl looking not too different from American suburbs. The main variations being the sand color of the buildings and their distinct cube-like architecture. Cars honked as they drove by. We walked by the malls and through the green parks. Even in the night, the color looked vibrant against the tan and beige that filled the landscape.
Soon we exited the city, reaching a stretched road leading to the West Bank. We walked along a highway. Aside from old and ruined hovels, fewer and fewer manmade structures occupied the view. On this small tract, after maybe only a mile of walking, we found a space much more akin to our imaginations. A hilled scenery, white rocks and sparse shrubbery. Brown and hard dirt that felt too dry for any type of plant to grow in, but nonetheless they did. Olive trees with twisted trunks and chipping bark sprouted occasionally between rock and ruin. Sometimes the trees sheltered a little patch of grass under their limbs, offering solace on a hot day. Bethlehem was pockets of light in the near distance.
But this atmosphere quickly changed as they often do in Israel. A white painter’s van slowed down next to us, and a Palestinian man in the passenger seat stuck his head out the window. In Arabic, he yelled to us, asking if we were okay and if we needed a ride. A not uncommon occurrence. We thanked him but told him we were walking because we wanted to. He laughed and insisted, but finally waved goodbye after we assured him all was fine.
After two hours of walking, we approached the border checkpoint, a concrete hulk built in a tall grey wall. Guard towers stood at each corner. For a lot of people, the wall is the physical symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but on this night it gave off a strangely different aura. Spread over the snaking concrete were bright and colorful Christmas decorations. Santa and his reindeer, a waving snowman, strands of lights, and all the clichéd rest. We entered the checkpoint and were greeted with an empty room and flickering fluorescent lights. Gates and offices, barren. Through the door at the other end, we could see two Israeli guards holding rifles, they waved us through. We walked past the usually stringent security and came into the city.
Aside from a running cat or an old man smoking outside his home, the streets were empty. But there was a music in the distance, so we walked towards it. Part of the night sky was illuminated with manmade brightness.
After five minutes, we neared the life of the city. Crowds were moving to the square. Security was posted at each roundabout, directing traffic with whistles and flailing arms with no clear method to their instruction. A motorcade parted the cars and drove up a hill towards the Church of the Nativity. Young men blasted music out of their windows and the streets were bright with yellow hued streetlamps and passing headlights. We hiked up a hill on cracking sidewalk, dust between the fissures and off the curb, one or two restaurant owners asking us where we were from as we walked by.
At the top of the hill, thick streams of visitors and locals funneled into alleys leading to the famous church. We walked up one more small incline to the final plateau of the square. Thousands of people were walking and smoking and yelling, all of them jubilant just after the clock struck twelve. Vendors with small carts sold candies and extra sugary tea with many mint leaves. At the base of the church was a Christmas Tree, the biggest one I’d ever seen, covered in red and green decorations, the star lit up in a soft red, and next to it, the Church of the Nativity’s stone bell tower. We ran into our other friends in the square and as we looked around, the world seemed happy. Maybe they’d forgotten all the other things that had been happening and will continue to happen in their lives and the lives that come after them in this old, old land. But of course, though this patch of ground is most famous for turbulence, it is also famous for life.
The castle-like structure below is the border checkpoint and is one of the ways through the enormous wall the Israeli military has constructed between Israel and the West Bank.
Jonathan Pezzi, (my grandson) is a recent graduate of Washington and Lee University. He has traveled extensively both for fun and for his studies, including a semester of study in Israel. His pictures of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East can be seen at https://www.instagram.com/finding_corners/