Annual tradition: Bethlehem Christmas tree lighting
By Stephanie Freid
Bethlehem: Birthplace of Christianity
"Peace, equality and freedom…that is the message we send to the world," Bethlehem mayor Anton Salman told thousands of locals, tourists and officials gathered in Bethlehem’s Manger Square Saturday night. Salman was joined by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in kicking off Christmas season celebrations with the city’s annual tree lighting ceremony.
Hamdallah addressed the crowd, talking about a need for stability and peace in Palestine and the region and an end to Israeli occupation.
Bethlehem is the site of "The Nativity" or the birthplace of Jesus Christ, according to Christian history. Situated about 10km south of Jerusalem, the ancient city has been a monastic center for centuries. In more recent history Bethlehem has been under British mandate, was annexed by Jordan, occupied by Israel and is now governed by the Palestinian Authority.
Lighting the tree
In Bethlehem, the annual tree lighting tradition marks the official start of the Christmas season. The 15-meter tree stands in the city square just a few hundred meters from the Church of the Nativity – the city’s main church built over the site believed to be Jesus’ birthplace.
In the lead up to Christmas, Bethlehem will host Christmas markets and entertainment programs in the city center.
'I see the star on top of the tree…but where is peace?'
The Bethlehem municipality predicts at least one million tourists will visit the city during the holiday season – the average number of visitors at Christmas time is between one to two million.
Becky, who was visiting with her church group from Arkansas, said that seeing the holy sites versus reading about them was tremendously eye-opening.
"Jesus did a lot of walking in his time. From Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem to the desert and it was all on foot! I know this is a small place but it’s amazing to think he did all of that in one lifetime," Becky said.
Father June Santiago from the Philippines, in Bethlehem on a three-month sabbatical, noted: "I see the star on top of the tree but where is the peace? That is the star of peace but peace is elusive."
Many Christians believe the star in the sky sighted historically at the time of Jesus' birth is a miraculous sign marking not only the birth but, some say, fulfilling a prophecy known as "The Star Prophecy."