Israeli foreign workers wait in line to visit the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 25. CNS photo/Debbie Hill
Israeli foreign workers wait in line to visit the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 25. CNS photo/Debbie Hill

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The normal crowds of pilgrims and tourists may not have been able to come to Bethlehem for Christmas due to COVID-19 travel restrictions for a second year in a row, but local Palestinian Christians wanted to assure everyone that the Christmas spirit is still alive and well in the city of Jesus' birth.

"Tell the world that the one word for Christmas would be 'joy,' and we have that here. Tell them that Christmas is about family," Francis Gedeon, 75, said after Christmas Mass as his family posed for family photos in the courtyard of St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. "We pray the pandemic will end soon."

"We are still happy to be able to celebrate Christmas despite everything, especially in Bethlehem," agreed his son, Fadi.

"Christmas is when family gets together, that is the most important thing," chimed in Rawan, Gedeon's daughter. "It has been a challenging year due to COVID, but we still have the spirit of Christmas and send prayers to the whole world. I love the Christmas feeling of peace, despite all the difficulties and restrictions."

She said that as the world continued to struggle with the pandemic, she felt especially blessed to be able to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem.

Gedeon's daughter Reem, who last year did not meet with her family for Christmas because her newborn daughter, Veronica, and husband Rafat, were sick with COVID-19, said celebrating with family was especially meaningful.

"This Christmas is so special and different from others; last year we did not meet and this is also my first Christmas with my daughter at church," she said.

Several other young couples of the parish also said this Christmas was special because of the addition of a new baby to their family.

Having their first baby with them at the Mass brought a whole new meaning to Christmas, said Haytham Dieck, 32, and his wife Raghda, 28. Last year they did not come to Mass and, still in the midst of the pandemic, did not even celebrate the holiday, said Raghda.

Haytham Dieck, coordinator of the Tour Guide Program at Bethlehem Bible College, said celebrating Christmas Mass with their 18-month-old daughter, Reina, gave him a whole new understanding about the birth of Jesus and the care Mary showed for her son.

"Reina has changed everything for us," he said. Even as little as she is, they bring her to the Church of the Nativity and show her the manger where Jesus was born. "We tell her: 'Look, here is your friend Jesus.'"

The tourism industry is central to the Bethlehem economy, and the city has been hit hard by the COVID-19 travel restrictions. There had been anticipation that pilgrims would be allowed in for Christmas, but then the outbreak of the omicron variant put a halt to that.

Irene Botto, 32, who has a guesthouse in Bethlehem and runs culinary experience tours, said the Christmas celebration brings hope. She came to Mass with her husband, Charbel, 32, and three young daughters.

"It has been so depressing, but ... we are still filled with hope. Family is Christmas, and when we gather with our family, it is the holiday," she said.

Manger Square was filled with Filipino caretakers, migrant workers, asylum-seekers, diplomats, foreign students who are living in Israel and Christian Israelis who were able to come to Bethlehem on Christmas. For a few hours, the stores and nearby streets were filled with people buying souvenirs, local tour guides leading groups and street vendors offering bargain prices on trinkets.

Inside the Church of the Nativity, the waiting line to descend into the crèche was long, and down below a Franciscan friar hurried the faithful through as they bent quickly to touch or pray at the silver star marking the traditional spot of Jesus' birth.

Semere Barigabari, 39, an asylum-seeker from Eritrea, kneeled and placed his head on the marble, remaining there in prayer for several seconds. Barigabari, who has been in Israel for 10 years, said this was the first time he has come to Bethlehem. His prayer, he said, was private between him and God, but in general he prayed for peace and thanked God for allowing him to reach Israel.