Saint Nicholas Day Celebration in Beit Jala
by Munir Alawi
Thousands of people from Bethlehem district come to Beit Jala St. Nicholas Day Celebration on Monday, December 19th honoring the town's patron saint. Beit Jala is a Palestinian Christian city in Bethlehem district located at 1.8km west of Bethlehem city.
St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop who provided for the poor and sick, and is the basis for the popular character of Santa Claus.
Born in Patara, a land that is part of present-day Turkey, circa 280, St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop who helped the needy. After his death, the legend of his gift-giving grew. St. Nicholas transformed into the legendary character called Santa Claus, who brings Christmas presents to children around the world.
As patron saint, St. Nicholas is regarded as the defender and protector of Beit Jala. During World Wars I and II, it is said that St. Nicholas stretched out over the village, protecting the people. Locals also report that he was seen with hands outstretched, catching bombs aimed at Beit Jala following the State of Israel's 1948 declaration of independence. One resident reports, "No bombs reached Beit Jala. Only the tower of the St. Nicholas Church was damaged. We know it was St. Nicholas that saved Beit Jala from any problems."
St. Nicholas' Day is part of a three-day celebration beginning with St. Barbara on December 17, then St. Saba on the 18th, and culminating in St. Nicholas Day on the 19th. The day begins at 7:30 am with St. Nicholas Liturgy, lasting until noon. Then a procession goes to the cave beneath St Nicholas Church where the saint stayed when in Beit Jala. Later in the afternoon everyone goes to the Orthodox Club social hall for a concert given by local church choirs.
Street parades, fun fairs, performances, and religious processions are all part of the celebration in this predominantly Christian town. Roman Catholics participate with the Greek Orthodox majority in the city-wide celebration.
Beit Jala is 65% Christian, with 5,000 Greek Orthodox, 2,000 Catholics, and about 500 Lutherans. All of the Christians celebrate St. Nicholas day together on December 19th. Beit Jala also has about 4,000 Muslims and many of them also take part in the festivities.