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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Bethlehem

City officials gather in Bethlehem to take part in the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. (Photos: Mohammad Al-Kassim/Jordan News)
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Christmas spirit is back in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. Around 15,000 people, mostly Palestinians braving the cold weather, helped light up a giant Christmas tree outside Church of the Nativity on Saturday, hoping that the new COVID-19 variant doesn’t ruin another holiday season in the traditional birthplace of Jesus. اضافة اعلان

And what a difference a year makes.

In 2020 at this time, Manger Square was deserted, devoid of tourists and locals.

(Photos: Mohammad Al-Kassim/Jordan News)

But this year the scene is quite different. Bishara Khayyat made the two-hour drive with his family to attend the event. 

“Of course, we are happy. Everyone is happy,” he says. “We have not gone out of the house, and we have not celebrated for two years.  This year is special.  We lit the tree and had a happy new year.”

Vida Zaarneh, visiting from Nazareth, told Jordan News that she was excited to attend the event in person. “I am very happy with this historical event after a year break. Very happy with the holiday event and festivities, especially to see the joy of the children.”

In early December, Israel shut out foreign travelers for 14 days to try to block the Omicron variant from spreading, and the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel.

(Photos: Mohammad Al-Kassim/Jordan News)

Last year, amid the pandemic, tree-lighting ceremony and holiday festivities were largely kept to a minimum in the Biblical town, and many of the events were held virtually, as COVID restrictions scaled back the annual event that is normally attended by thousands.

Typically, at this time of year, thousands of people flock to the biblical town, where Christians believe Jesus was born more than two thousand years ago.
In Manger Square, workers at are putting the final touches on the Christmas tree and setting up lights. But for the second year in a row, festivities are under threat of being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And local businesses are worried their holiday wonderland will again look like a deserted city, with no tourists or pilgrims.

Hanna Nissan, a souvenir shop owner, told Jordan News that there were hopeful signs that business may be back to normal, but news of a new coronavirus variant dashed these hopes. 
“Until a week ago, we were expecting that tourism was on its way back with force. We started to see signs of movement. But with the airport closure, the tourists probably will not return until next year.”

Hanna’s family has worked in the tourism sector for nearly five decades. He says this is the most difficult period he can recall.

Elias Al-Arja told Jordan News that he started advertising his two hotels to international and local travelers in November, when restrictions began to ease. But after Israel shut down its airport and announced new entry requirements, cancellations flooded his system.

“I had hired ten employees and we were looking to hire more because we expected to be busy. But we cancelled that and may lay off some of them. I can’t pay their wages without work,” he says.

In Bethlehem, Christmas isn’t just a holiday, it’s a livelihood. Businesses in the hospitality industry have been looking forward to this year’s festivities, which Mayor of Bethlehem Anton Salman says will go ahead as planned. But the travel restrictions imposed by an increasing number of countries could put a damper on holiday spirits.

(Photos: Mohammad Al-Kassim/Jordan News)

“We have the will that we are going to celebrate Christmas in a very optimistic way this year, different from last year,” says Salman. “We are preparing the city for the Christmas season, and we hope that interior tourism will take place.”

Merchants and city officials hope domestic tourism will help them salvage this season. 

Salman can hardly be seen still, always running around Manger Square, making sure the tree is set up on schedule, lights are properly connected, and the city is safe for visitors. Salman told Jordan News that he and his office want to offer visitors to Bethlehem a “great and festive” atmosphere. 

2019 was a record year for tourism in Bethlehem and the Palestinian Territories, with more than 3.5 million visitors pumping millions of dollars into the local economy. 

With governments still uncertain about how to respond to the virus and its variants, people here say the only thing they can do is pray for a Christmas miracle.

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