By Julie Holm
This year I spent my first Christmas away from home, away from my family, snow, Scandinavian Christmas dinners and everything else I usually associate with Christmas. This year I spent Christmas in Bethlehem, not so much for religious reasons as for the fact that this seemed the place to be for the night. For me, Christmas has very little to do with religion and everything to do with people coming together and spending the evening with loved ones. Being away from my family, I truly appreciated the company of my close friends; old and new, Muslims, Christians and atheists alike. They filled my first Christmas in “the Holy Land” with love and joy and laughter, just like every Christmas should be.
Nevertheless, as living in Palestine has taught me, no celebration, however joyous and merry, can escape the realities of the Israeli occupation and Christmas in Bethlehem was no different. A good way to put this into perspective is the fact that if Mary and Joseph had come to Bethlehem this year, instead of some 2000 years ago, they would most likely not have been let into the city. As Bethlehem is surrounded by the wall on three sides, Mary and Joseph would have been stopped at the checkpoint by young, armed Israeli soldiers, their donkey would have been searched thoroughly and their ID papers would have been subject to close inspection. The fact that Mary was pregnant, almost about to give birth, would not have made a difference. Every year Palestinian women are forced to give birth at checkpoints, on their way to the hospital, at the risk of their own health and that of their unborn children. Just imagine the Christmas songs and nativity scenes if Jesus was born at an Israeli checkpoint.
The truth is, however, if Mary and Joseph were alive today chances are they wouldn’t even have started their trip to Bethlehem, knowing that the Israeli restrictions on mobility would prevent them from going very far. A couple of weeks ago, in the spirit of Christmas, Israel announced that they would ease travel restrictions for Palestinian Christians during the holiday. What was supposed to portray Israel as generous and trusting ended up looking more as a joke. Can there even be such a thing as a generous occupier? This occupier was to allow up to 500 Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip to travel to the West Bank to see their families and visit holy sites (oh, the generosity). The thing is though, only people under the age of 16 or over the age of 35 would get this permission which in many cases means that if the parents of a family can go, the children can’t and if the children are the right age, the parents aren’t. In the end what was supposed to look like a gesture of goodwill and tolerance became just another example of how Palestinian families are kept apart by walls, checkpoints and restrictions.
On Christmas Eve in Denmark when all the hustle and bustle of the Christmas preparations are over and the family is gathered around Christmas dinner under the lights from the decorated tree, we have an expression which, if literally translated means, “how Christmas peace is settling.” These words are also very relevant when celebrating Christmas in Palestine. The difference, however, is in the double meaning of “settling”. In Palestine, Christmas peace is not “settling” the country but Israel is, with their continued settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Even though I spent this Christmas in the place where all Christmases are said to have their beginning, I could relate very little to the way I usually spend Christmas. Next year I am wishing for more peace and fewer settlements (if any at all), fewer walls and checkpoints and more families being united over Christmas dinner. It might be a little naïve and cliché but if there is any time of year to wish for more love, tolerance and (true) generosity, Christmas would be it.