By Tom Symington

Columbia Valley Arts Council Memoir Group

I was excited and uneasy at the same time. 

My bus was heading towards Bethlehem, 10 km south of Jerusalem. It was a cool and crisp late December afternoon—Christmas Eve in the Holy Land. The mental images I had of Mary riding a donkey and Joseph walking alongside her as they made their way to the City of David for the census so many centuries ago didn’t correspond to the pavement and the stone walls that lined the road we were following. Did Mary and Joseph have to enter an occupied territory on their way to the stable where the baby Jesus was laid in a manger? Was there a police check? Were there soldiers lining the route?

Manger Square was a large open space decorated with a huge Christmas tree and strings of coloured lights. The atmosphere was restrained and subdued because of the October war. Christian pilgrims were not flocking to Bethlehem this year. The stage by the tree was bare, although a choir was scheduled to perform. Contemporary Christmas music was being piped over the speakers around the square while the crowd milled about. It seemed oddly out of place. There was a tension in the air. The square was lined with Palestinian souvenir shops. I didn’t associate Christmas Eve with commerce. The mood was far from joyous. 

The Church of the Nativity stood at one end of the square. It is a joint Catholic and Greek Orthodox holy site. As a Protestant, I didn’t want to attend the service there. But I thought I should at least visit the grotto that marks the spot where Jesus was born. I entered the foreboding basilica through the tall imposing doors and followed the arrows in the dimly lit interior to the stairs leading down to the  crypt. This was the place. It didn’t have any resemblance to a stable at all. An old but beautiful stone inset in the floor and surrounded by candles marked the spot where Christ was born! I was pleased I was there, but confused as to what my feelings should be. 

Back out in the square, I learned there was a gathering of Protestant denominations at the Shepherds’ Field back down the road towards Jerusalem. It was almost dark now. I found my way into a large walled enclosure and finally, as twilight melted into darkness, I felt the mystery of this place under the star-studded heavens stretching to the horizons above the Judean hills. I could see the star of wonder—the star of light—that guided the Magi to Bethlehem. Familiar hymns were being sung in various languages. I felt the spirit of Christmas as I joined in, and I shivered as I understood the religious significance of this holy land. 

Tired of standing, I hopped up on the high stone wall of the enclosure—as others were doing. I was brought back to earth as I looked down at the ground outside the wall and noticed armed Israeli soldiers patrolling the gathering at ten foot intervals. 

I did buy a souvenir at one of the stands lining the road as I made my way to the bus for the short ride back to Jerusalem. A string of tiny carved olive-wood camels reminds me of a memorable Christmas Eve.