Christmas celebrations canceled, Christians in the Holy Land still find hope in the season


Last month, as the war on Gaza raged, church leaders in Jerusalem made a decision to cancel all festivities connected to Christmas, saying manifestations of joy of the season during the fighting was inappropriate. While the decision drew general public support, some have argued that the war is a time to think creatively to ensure the happiness of Christmas is not lost amid grieving the reported 24,142 people killed in the Gaza Strip, including 9,420 children and 4,910 women, with 48,901 more injured.

An installation of a scene of the Nativity of Christ with a figure symbolizing baby Jesus lying amid the rubble, in reference to Gaza, inside the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. World-famous Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been put on hold due to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

In Bethlehem, where the Gospels say Christ was born, the Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of Nativity Evangelical Lutheran Church, transformed the church’s nativity scene — normally a figure of the infant Jesus in a humble manger in the presence of shepherds — into a pile of stones. Instead of the swaddling clothes mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, he wrapped the figure of baby Jesus with a Palestinian keffiyeh.

While Bethlehem is in the West Bank, not Gaza, Isaac tweeted that his point was that Christ’s birth, had it come today, would have come amid the rubble in Gaza.

In a sermon, Isaac noted that the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story focus on “compassion for the displaced, refugees, and the oppressed.” If Jesus had been born in the year 2023, he said, “it would have been natural for him to find himself among the oppressed and displaced Palestinian people and among the children of Palestine who, along with their people, are subjected to genocide.”

Isaac and other Palestinian theologians have used the coming Christmas season to make a powerful appeal to fellow Christians around the world to speak out for a permanent ceasefire and an end to the assault on Palestinians.

Jordanian journalist Osama Al-Rantisi expressed a different opinion on the issue of canceling Christmas celebrations. Writing in Arabic on the Al-Awal News website, Al-Rantisi claimed, “What angers the occupying state most is light and joy, because it is a state of darkness, beating, and killing.” He offered that “Lighting the Christmas tree in public streets and homes is the biggest message to the world and to the Zionist war leaders that we want to live and rejoice, no matter how brutal the aggression.” 

He called on Arab Christians in Jordan and Palestine “to celebrate Christmas and light the Christmas tree. This is a ritual of joy and life, so do not let death rejoice in its victory over us.”

Many other Arab Christians, however, are concerned that traditional celebrations of Christmas in the presence of death, injury and homelessness in Gaza could be misunderstood. Instead they have come up with alternatives, like Isaac’s nativity scene, that show both the sadness and the hope they feel at Christmas.

Children at the Ramallah Friends School, founded by Quakers, which saw three of its graduates shot on a Vermont street because they were wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh and speaking in Arabic, rewrote the Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy,” to fit what is happening in Gaza.

Students at the Alliance Academy-Jordan recorded a slightly changed version of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World.” They called it a song of hope and began their performance with a statement that their work is a “tribute to the Palestinian and Arab children suffering the atrocities of war and pain. Our hearts are with you, and we learn from your resilience.”

Christmas is too deeply embedded an event for Christians to quiet it completely, as is the war too present in people’s minds not to make connections between the Christ child and suffering children in Gaza. In Christmas concerts and other performances across Jerusalem and the Holy Land, wherever Christians are found, Christmas has been giving Palestinian and other Arab Christians an opportunity to reflect on what is going on in Gaza.

This is especially true where children are the focus. At an event Friday (Dec. 15), Sanadak, a non-profit that works with the Christian Alliance for Orphans, began its annual Christmas event at the Amman Baptist School with a minute of silent prayer for the children of Palestine. It was a reminder that the baby Jesus came as a messenger of peace to the world, and that the church’s message of solidarity with the Palestinian people can be part of spreading the joy of Christmas.

Source: Kuttab