'Tis the season, and Bethlehem businesses hope for a merry one

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Even the Christmas decorations
seem more cheerful this year in Bethlehem.

A new display of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh were about to
alight at the main traffic circle on Manger Street, and a big white Christmas
tree made of lights perched merrily next to them. The official Christmas tree
in Nativity Square was a focus of great commotion as pilgrims and locals struck
poses for photos and selfies Dec. 5. A few days earlier, at the official tree
lighting ceremony, the square was packed with hundreds of onlookers ready to welcome
the Christmas season to the birthplace of Jesus.

After two Christmas seasons in which the political reality
had overtaken holiday cheer, people seemed primed to finally feel some
merriment in Bethlehem. In 2014, the summer Gaza war was still keeping away
tourists, and last year a spate of stabbings and shootings overshadowed any
hope of holiday cheer.

This year, the Israeli separation barrier construction
continues to slowly creep around Bethlehem, creating an isolated enclave. There
has been no real move toward a long-term peace agreement, nor any easing of
travel restrictions or any significant improvement in the economic or political
situations, but Palestinians are embracing what they can of the holiday spirit.

Storekeepers like Muslim Samer Laham, 37, whose front
entrance displays rows of hanging Santa Claus hats, are putting out their
Christmas wares and readying for the celebrations.

“People haven’t started buying the hats yet, but they
will in a few more days,” said Laham confidently.

Ashraf and Shahad Natsheh, who are also Muslim, took the
afternoon to come from Hebron, West Bank, to take pictures of their
10-month-old daughter Na’ara in front of the official Bethlehem Christmas tree
with its life-sized creche and gold-colored ornaments.

“The atmosphere is definitely better than last year,
the roads are open and there is more calm,” said Shahad Natsheh, 26.
“We come to see the tree because it is beautiful.”

Ian Knowles, the British director of the Bethlehem Icon
Centre on historic Star Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare into the
city center, said although people are still a bit apprehensive about the
general situation, “Christmas hope still flickers.”

Seeing the apparent defeat of Islamic State in several
battles in Iraq and Syria has also brought a sense of optimism to the Christian
community, which had harbored fears that they might be next if the militants
were not stopped, he said.

“People here have family in Jordan and Lebanon, and
they were feeling (that this) could happen to them,” said Knowles.
“Now they are watching as Christians are slowly returning to their
churches and celebrating Masses in the charred remains.”

Catholic tattoo artist Walid Ayash, 39, and his staff stayed
up almost half the night cleaning his tattoo studio and barber shop and putting
up Christmas decorations.

“Two days ago they lit up the Christmas tree in the
city. Everybody is happy. The kids are happy. I have four kids and they are
happy,” he said. “Last year it was very sad, the situation was bad,
but we hope this year will be better than before.”

“I want to be happy with my family. I am very
religious. I thank God I am in Bethlehem. We celebrate. My workers dress like
Santa Claus and throw candy for the children. The kids will be here, the atmosphere
will be happy. You know, it’s Christmas,” he said.

Cradling one of his white doves — “peace pigeons”
as he has dubbed them — in his hands in their rooftop roost above Star Street,
Anton Ayoub Mussalam, 75, who is Catholic, said everyone is waiting for

From 1987 until 2015, he and his wife, Mary had not had
permission to go to Jerusalem, where one of their daughters lives.

“Maybe there will be a happy
Christmas,” Mussalam said. “We hope everyone will be happy. We hope
there will be a small piece of peace. We need peace like we need food and

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