The Town With Three Christmas Days
THE TOWN WITH THREE CHRISTMAS DAYS
28 December 2014 Last updated at 23:24
By Yolande KnellBBC News, Bethlehem
Christmas comes but once a year - unless you live in Bethlehem,
where three different Christian denominations celebrate on three
There are no calls of "legs eleven" or "two fat ladies" at the Arab
Women's Union bingo in Bethlehem.
And there's another big difference from your standard British game.
Instead of cash, the prizes are household items: washing powder,
toilet rolls or, if you're lucky, an electric blanket.
Bingo is always popular with housewives here but the idea of the
union's weekly gathering is to raise funds for charity.
Listen to From Our Own Correspondent for insight and analysis from
BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
Broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 BST and BBC World Service
In the run-up to Christmas, it organises a party for needy children.
Dozens of local kids are entertained with clowns, fed lunch and given
goodies to take home.
Christian members of the women's union feel a special responsibility
for keeping alive the Christmas message of compassion and hope.
"Christmas is our national feast and the feast of our city," says
president and great-grandmother, Virginique Canawati.
"It's not Christmas if you're happy at home with your family and you
have a neighbour with nothing," adds the bingo caller, Susie Nasr.
"There's a lot of poverty in Bethlehem. We have the highest
unemployment in the West Bank and people have to think about every
penny they spend," she adds.
After a game of bingo earlier this month, I proudly displayed my
winnings - a large bottle of fabric conditioner and a packet of
Then as we polished off some tasty thyme and cheese pastries,
the women told me about the delicious meals they had planned for
There's not really a market for turkey and all the trimmings here,
although one year I did surprise my visiting parents - who are used
to oven-ready products - by returning from the butcher's with a warm,
freshly killed bird in a plastic bag.
The preference of Christians in the Holy Land tends to be Arabic
salads followed by a main course - perhaps lamb stuffed with rice,
or maashi - stuffed vine leaves, aubergines and courgettes.
While there's an emphasis on having new clothes for the feast,
gift giving is far less excessive than you typically see in Western
Decorating the Christmas tree in Manger Square Christmas decorations
on sale in Bethlehem
And the celebrations go on for longer than we're used to. Indeed,
rather than having one Christmas Day, three are marked in Bethlehem.
The Catholics lead processions along the traditional pilgrimage route
from Jerusalem to the Nativity Church ahead of their Christmas on
But now attention switches to the Greek Orthodox, who make up the
majority of Palestinian Christians. Their Christmas Day falls on
The 13 day difference is explained by calendars. While the Latin
church switched to the Gregorian calendar, devised by Pope Gregory in
the 16th Century, the Eastern Orthodox churches still use the older,
Julian calendar - created during the reign of Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
What makes the situation in the Holy Land really unusual is that
Armenians here wait even longer for Christmas. Their parade isn't
until 18 January.
On each Christmas Eve, Bethlehem gives a warm welcome to church
patriarchs and priests when they enter Manger Square.
And as waiting crowds of the faithful munch chocolate Santas and
sip at sahlab - a hot Ottoman-era drink made from orchids - it's the
marching bands that keep them entertained.
The Grotto at Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Christians
believe Jesus was born
For weeks now in Beit Jala, the town next to Bethlehem where I live,
there's been the constant din of drums and bagpipes - as the scout
troops practise their festive routines.
Scouting was introduced to Palestine in British Mandate times -
from 1920 to 1948 - and it remains hugely popular with boys and girls.
The head of the Arab Orthodox Scout Group, Khaled Qassis, looks more
than a little stressed as he organises a Christmas bazaar and street
clean-ups while the pipers play on.
But he can't disguise his pride at his scouts' place in the Christmas
"As scouts, the last thing we're interested in is showing off,"
he tells me. "But we are very famous for playing well."
Many Palestinian Christians see themselves as custodians of Christmas
and its colourful traditions.
The dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land adds a sense of
urgency to their celebrations. Nowadays many young people in the West
Bank choose to emigrate because of the difficult economic and social
conditions created by Israel's occupation.
In the quiet of Beit Jala's Virgin Mary church, where the air's thick
with incense, Father George reflects that this time of year carries
spiritual and political significance.
"When we celebrate we show the world that Bethlehem's a peaceful,
safe city," he says.
"This is the birthplace of Christ and we're the oldest congregation
in the world. If we don't light our trees and hang decorations here,
then we'll die out."
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30
Listen online or download the podcast.
BBC World Service: at weekends - see World Service programme schedule.