Why can’t people put Christmas trees away?

Behind-the-scenes story related to Christmas in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip

[Original by Yoriko YAMAMURA, Palestine Project (January 28, 2020); Translated by H. Ueda/A. Taguchi]

What comes to your mind when you hear the word Christmas? It is widely recognized by the Japanese that December 24 is Christmas Eve and the 25th is Christmas Day. After the 25th, people in Japan put away Christmas trees and put up New Year decorations instead. However, things are slightly different in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, Christmas decorations including Christmas trees remain here and there even after the 25th. The same scene can be seen in the West Bank as well. When I was transferred here, I believed at first that it was due to the character of the Arabs. As they don’t pay attention to details, they must think it is not necessary to put away Christmas decorations strictly after the 25th, I supposed. However, I later found that they had their own reasons.

Christmas decorations around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (January 18, 2020).

Dates of Christmas events are different by religious sects

The following is a list of Christmas events scheduled from December to January, which Palestinian Christians observe.

    December 24: Christmas Eve (Western Church)

    December 25: Christmas (Western Church)

    January 6: Christmas Eve (Eastern Orthodox Church), Epiphany (Catholic, the day to celebrate the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem)

    January 7: Christmas (Eastern Orthodox Church, based on the Gregorian calendar)

    January 13: New Year’s Eve (Eastern Orthodox Church)

    January 14: New Year (Eastern Orthodox Church)

    January 18: Christmas Eve (Armenian Orthodox Church)

    January 19: Christmas (Armenian Orthodox Church), Epiphany (Catholic, the day to celebrate the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem)

[Source: Passia, 2019]

As you can see from the above list, Armenians living mainly in the Armenian section, one of the four sections in the Old City of Jerusalem, celebrate Christmas in the middle of January. So, they say it is quite natural to see Christmas trees there until then. Only Armenians living in Jerusalem, among others all over the world, celebrate Christmas in this season, according to sources.

A big Christmas tree in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (daytime, January 18, 2020).

A big Christmas tree in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (night time, January 18, 2020).

Decline of Christians year by year

Although people celebrate Christmas on a large scale in Jerusalem, the Christian population has declined here. The number of Palestinian Christians living in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip has now significantly decreased.

According to the census data in 2018, about 1.9 million Palestinians live all over Israel and 130,000 of them are Christians [CBS, Statistical Abstract 2019]. The ratio of Palestinian Christians to the total population of Jerusalem is as little as 1.8%, while their ratio to the Palestinian population living in Jerusalem is only 3.7% [Passia, 2019]. It is said that Palestinian Christians in the West Bank accounts for only 2% of the population, and those in the Gaza Strip is less than 1% [IMEU, 2012].

The reason why the Christian population has declined is that it is easier for Palestinian Christians to get approval to leave the West Bank (get out from the Israel side) than Palestinian Muslims, thereby promoting their immigration to the US or European countries. And most Palestinian Christian’s children go to Christian schools established by European Church organizations, where they learn the faith in Christianity and become familiar with western culture, which is another reason that encourages them to immigrate.

A Christmas tree in the downtown of Ramallah (January 16, 2020).

Palestinian’s fellowship across all faiths

A Muslim woman in her 40s living in Jerusalem once said, “It is sad to see the declining population of Palestinian Christians because such a phenomenon leads to a loss of ethnic diversity.” And when I asked a taxi driver in his 20s living in Bethlehem what his faith is, he didn’t reveal his religion saying, “Religion doesn’t matter, as Muslims and Christians are both Palestinians.” In the meantime, some Christians say that “Muslims who compose the majority of the population do not understand minority Christians,” while some Muslims complain that “Christians can easily get out of the country. Many of them have high economic standards and they are more fortunate in many ways than Muslims.” To me, however, they seem to have a sense of solidarity.

When you walk down a street in Palestine in the Christmas season, you encounter many scenes showing people celebrating Christmas together. Muslim stores sell Christmas ornaments and girls wearing hijabs, veils that Muslim women wear on their heads, take commemorative pictures joyously in front of Christmas trees. In 2017, when Al-Aqsa Mosque was sealed by the Israeli government, it was featured in the news that Christians were praying in front of the Mosque together with Muslims. On the contrary, an Imam (Islamic leader) may take part in a Christian event. And as most of the students attending Christian schools in Jerusalem are Muslims, Christian and Muslim students have daily exchanges.

I understand the feeling of Christians who chose to live in western countries, leaving their mother country under occupation. However, when I look up at the Christmas trees, I can’t help wishing that as many Christians as possible continue to stay here since Palestine is a place where people exist together in harmony, recognizing and respecting the difference in each other.

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