To Americans, Christmas in Bethlehem can be a jarring experience.
This is partly because the sight of armed troops is still an unusual sight to most Americans and in Bethlehem, an occupied territory since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Uzzis are at least as common as rosaries.
More than that, however, is the failure of Bethlehem to fit the American image of the place where Christ was born. Thanks in part to the photographic license of Hollywood moguls who saw box office potential in the Christmas story, and in part to the parochial sentimentality of Christmas card artistry, Christmas to most Americans is something quite unlike the pungent reality of the small village where, 1,971 years ago, a carpenter's wife gave birth to a child whose name would be Jesus.
This vision of Christmas is an often amusing juxtaposition of admittedly picturesque, yet incompatible and frequently anachronistic elements: sleigh bells and snow drifts; plump English squires wolfing plum pudding; trussed turkeys cooking in electric ovens, slim church steeples in New England villages, "Silent Night" sung tenderly in Latin, a Macy's parade, a generous Dutch saint and the clang of cash registers.
Bethlehem has nothing in common with such images. Bethlehem is an Eastern town with more than its share of the sounds, smells and sights that give all Eastern communities their particular and unforgettable flavor: muezzins chanting prayers ... mosques standing in tranquil harmony with churches ... a crowded "suq" redolent with sharp strange smells ... narrow stone streets ... small shops stuffed with statues carved from shell and olive wood ... donkeys laden with boxes ... the black and white mosaic of cassocks, surplices and sisters' habits ... the restless movement of peoples in costumes from all over the world ... the shape of arid hills in the distance ... an unseasonable warmth.
To those who link the Christmas spirit to crisp winter air and glowing cheeks, all this is unavoidably jarring—as is the stern surveillance by helmeted patrols, the density of the crowds, the pedestrian architecture of the cathedrals, the hum of tourists, and the constant clicking of cameras, the tensions of a city dedicated to peace but torn by war.
Yet it is the birthplace of Christ. And if the customs of the East disturb the visitors, they also affirm a certain continuity of life. For despite the lapse of centuries, Bethlehem retains an aura that is visibly Biblical. Out beyond the town, for example, on winding roads leading to Jerusalem or distant Nazareth, stand villages hardly touched by time, villages with wells dug centuries ago, where women gather in robes that the Apostles would have known and Mary might have worn. There are olive groves too with trees planted long before that first Christmas, and fields where stolid shepherds in sandals guard their flocks and where, at Christmas, devout pilgrims come to sing of that night so long ago or listen to the echoes of Gregorian chant from candlelit cathedrals in the town. And there are the children whose large Eastern eyes reflect the ageless innocence of childhood.
These traces of the past certainly do not override the strident voice of the transistor, or muffle the exhaust of the buses careening by, or mute the high cry of the Muslim call to prayer or the mutter of a Boeing off to New York. But they do endure, and in enduring remind us that Christmas, like truth, is a timeless and changeless thing.