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Feast in Manger Square: Christmas tree is lit in Bethlehem

by Beatrice Guarrera

There was a festive atmosphere in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. A large crowd filled the square in front ‎of the Basilica of the Nativity for the Christmas tree lighting celebration on December 3. Many children, ‎youth and adults were eagerly awaiting this moment. From the stage, which was placed to the right of ‎the large Christmas tree, two presenters introduced the guests and marked the pace of the event. As ‎scheduled, the celebration began at 6:20 p.m. with musical accompaniment. The first to perform were ‎the Scouts from Bethlehem, followed by the singer Luna Amin and the choir of the Oslo Philharmonic ‎Orchestra, who sang Christmas carols.

The mayor of Bethlehem then went on the stage for her traditional speech given on the occasion of this ‎event. Vera Baboun thanked all of the authorities present and reflected on the year’s theme “Mercy is ‎the spirit of Christmas,” in the spirit of Pope Francis’ message. The mayor expressed words of ‎encouragement, her hope for peace and also proudly voiced her support for contest singer Mohammad ‎Assaf, a Palestinian performer. After a performance by a choir of Maltese nuns and one by the singer ‎Shafeeq Alsadi, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Alhamdulla spoke. “We believe in peace; we believe in ‎mercy,” he said, when two balloons were sent into the air as a sign of peace. The large Christmas tree ‎was then blessed by the heads of the Christian churches, who approached the tree together. Also ‎present were the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land: the new guardian of the fraternity, Fr. Artemio ‎Vitores, the new pastor of St. Catherine’s, Fr. Rami Asakrieh, and the new assistant pastor, Fr. Emad ‎Rofael. With solemn music and after the countdown in Arabic, the tree was lit, with the enthusiasm of ‎those present in the square. Many residents of Bethlehem were present, as well as pilgrims, tourists ‎and people from all over Palestine.

Elwa attended the celebration with her daughters and family, and she stayed to take pictures, “I am a ‎Muslim, but I love this event. Here in Bethlehem, Muslims and Christians live together. We live a few ‎minutes from the Church.” Gabi, a middle-aged man from Beit Jala, has always come to see the ‎lighting, but he said in his amazement, “I really did not expect all these people [to come] this year.” A ‎woman with carrying a child in her arms said, “I am a Christian, but I'm not from here. My husband is, ‎and I'm very happy to be here because it is my first time here with my daughter,” 

‎‎“For centuries, we Muslims and Christians have lived together here and this is a celebration for ‎everyone,” said Paul, an innkeeper, who is originally from Bethlehem. Many young people attended the ‎tree lighting. Rami, who is about twenty years old, is a Muslim and said that Christmas is very important ‎for him: “Here people are happy; they love each other. Christmas means happiness, coming together ‎and having moments of sharing with those whom we love. I want to come to Bethlehem every year at ‎Christmastime. His mother, her hair covered by a hijab, smiled and took pictures of her children, ‎dressed in red Santa hats, before the illuminated tree in Bethlehem.

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