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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.‎

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