Last night, being Christmas Eve, a bunch of us thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience to go into Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity to see it on Christmas Eve. It made for a long, long night.
We took a fifteen minute walk from school to the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. There were tons of cabs lined up on the side of the road waiting to take all of the pilgrims who were on their way. After a little negotiating, we got into three cabs, two cars and a bus, and headed towards the Bethlehem Border Crossing. Our unmarked cab took us right up to the crossing, but dropped us off there. There are some laws that require certain licenses to cross the border into the West Bank (or as our driver called it, Palestine).
Since it was a pilgrimage holiday, the crossing was very easy. We showed our passports and crossed in a few minutes. Really not a big deal. Once on the other side of the border, we hired another cab from the border towards The Church of the Nativity. It was strange sitting in the front of the cab and hearing the drive saying, "Shit!" when we ran into traffic. I asked him what was wrong and he started to complain about the police and that they were blocking off roads that were open a few hours earlier.
We got let out a five minute walk away from Manger Square because there were road blocks all over the place and guys with big guns told the car to stop. After a few minutes of walking, suddenly the place was packed with people. Shops and restaurants had people spilling out onto the street and we heard Christmas Music in English playing from some of the stores as we passed them.
Finally at the square, we needed to regroup with all of the people we came with. As we were wandering there was a guy with a large coffee warmer so two of us went to get some coffee, it was pretty chilly. It turns out that he was selling something called "Sachlav." It's heated, sweet-milk, with some herbs and other things mixed into it and put on the top. Super sweet and super tasty. Apparently Cup 'o Joe or Cafe Cafe sells that around Jerusalem. I need to check it out.
We toured the square and looked at all of the people. It wasn't possible to get close to the church because there were barricades all over the place and very large police presence. We kept walking.
There were little kids trying to sell us things all over the place. I felt bad telling them no, but after being asked seven or eight times by the same child, I was getting a little annoyed. But as long as we kept walking, we weren't hassled by them.
Wandering around we found a few other Churches, but I have no idea what was special about them. We didn't get the opportunity to go into any of them because Mass was starting soon. Not that we cared too much, but it would have been cool to see what all the churches we for.
On the way back to the square, we stopped in a shop that had a bunch of olive wood carvings. They were beautiful pieces of art. One that really struck my eye, as well as the eyes of a few other people in our group, was a large carving of "The Last Supper." It was really beautiful. Of course none of us were looking to buy anything, we only wanted to look at the artwork. After a few moments we left the shop and met with the larger chunk of our group that we had come with.
At this point a few of them wanted to leave. Not all of did though. A group of six of us wanted to stay to see Mass.
There was a very large screen that had the service inside the church being broadcast on the side of the building. It started a little bit before midnight and we hung around until about 12:30 in the morning. It was interesting hearing the service in Latin translated into Arabic. This meant that none of us really understood a word. The mass of people standing outside the church was incredible. So many people absolutely fixated on the screen listening to the service.
A few people were pushing through the crowd selling coffee, tea and these paper lanterns. You are supposed to light the lantern and let it rise into the air. A few of them were set off and I liked seeing them rise over the people. Looking around the crowd I liked seeing the lights decorating the entire plaza, complete with a large green tree decorated like Christmas Trees back home. Blue lights strung as icicles made me miss winter.
We left the square around 12:30 in the morning to head back to Jerusalem. Our driver that took us to the border told us that the extra security was because the President of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, was inside the church. That was probably the man they kept focusing on at the front of the congregation, but I couldn't tell who it was initially. This was also the reason that we needed to walk five minutes to get to his taxi.
Another friendly cab ride later we got to the crossing again. This time it was a little longer of a process to get through. There were more people and we needed to cue in a long line. The guard let four people into the screening area at a time and everyone set off the metal detector. When I got through and remembered that I had a ring on my finger, I was surprised that I didn't continue to set off the alarm. It took me three tries to get through without a beep.
In the large cab, we ran into a group of HUC students that had walked to the church starting at 6:30 that evening. It took them about three hours to get there.
It was a pretty cool experience to have here. I'm really glad I took the time to go, especially because I don't know if I will ever have the opportunity to do it again.
My camera is still broken, so I don't have any pictures until I'm able to take the ones my friends let me shoot.
For those who spend today as a celebration, Merry Christmas from Jerusalem.