O HOLY NIGHT
Others had always complained about Christmas and its commercialization, many preferring the perceived deeper spirituality of the Easter season, but I had never been in agreement with them.
I had no problem, I felt, seeing through all the dazzle and tinsel to the heart of Christmas, and I revelled in the season - cards, wise men, angels, mangers, shepherds, cake, turkey, cranberry, toys and Messiahs all wrapped up in star bright winter nights. So when the opportunity came to travel to Bethlehem over the Christmas season with others from my church I was the first to approach the pastor.
Our pastor was a gaunt man. I signed my name to the sheet and gave him my deposit in cash. He stuck the money in a drawer in his desk.
“You’re quite the Jingle Bells,” he said. “The trip may disappoint. Perhaps you’d prefer your Christmas here in the snow.”
I shook my head. “I’ve loved Christmas all my life. The crassness of North America has never blunted that. I’ll be fine in Bethlehem.”
When you are excited about something, long trips mean nothing. The flight touched down in Israel about ten at night and while the pastor had the face of an owl, I was as lively and as talkative as the squirrel that got away. Sleeping at the King David Hotel was a further stimulant, so I did not sleep. The next morning when the bus chugged up to board us for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, my eyes were red but flashing, darting, taking in everything. I was awake and coiled in my seat while others sagged and slept again.
This was Bethlehem before the Palestinian takeover, before the banners of Christ walking arm-in-arm with Yasser Arafat. As I stepped down into the brittle night air of Manger Square, my way was immediately barred by a gate and by Israeli soldiers with Uzis. All of Manger Square was under patrol. I saw soldiers on the rooftops, snipers, machine guns. I produced a passport, was thoroughly searched, the soldiers stepped aside, I passed through the gate.
Bright lights, bright lights. Masses of people. Our church group could not get into the Church of the Nativity, that had been packed for hours, and the Square itself was jammed with bodies that glittered under the high intensity lights and the strings of white Christmas bulbs. A massive screen had been erected that would allow us to view the Christmas Eve Mass on the outside while it took place on the inside of the church. I wandered, gazed. People pushed against me, struck me, scowled. Shops that rimmed the Square were open for business: pictures of Mary and Joseph, toy sheep, crosses made out of genuine olive wood from the Mount of Olives, Bibles stamped that they had been purchased in Bethlehem, nativity sets hastily carved and even more hastily painted, so that Joseph’s eyes bulged in a misshapen face daubed crimson, postcards of Bethlehem with shepherds in first century garb tending their flocks in amber fields under azure skies, racks of Church of the Nativity miniature spoons. I bought nothing. I emerged from a shop to see several of our men rescuing one of our young women from a gang of teenagers who leered and taunted and coaxed for sexual favours. She was crying. Angry, I looked about for police or soldiers. A stage lit up suddenly and various choirs began to perform carols in languages from around the world. The crowd listened. Our church group placed our girls and women within a protective circle and began to listen too. Most of the carols I did not know and could not understand. A paper bag was thrust into my hand - a bottle of Seagram’s whiskey. I placed it on the ground and noticed that all about me were people nipping from bottles in brown paper bags, presumably to keep off the chill. Someone had gotten sick and was on their knees, heaving. As I tried to focus on the carols again drunken wailing rose up from behind me. What were they singing? Silent night? I glanced up but the bright lights obliterated any stars.
I plunged my hands deeper into my pockets and hunched my shoulders against the cold. They never led us in any carol singing, so we were silent as choir after choir sang unknown and exotic pieces. It was midnight. The large screen flickered and flashed and it was the Pope himself, wasn’t it, performing the Mass in black and white. He moved silently among the chalices and the candlesticks, the gold and the silver. There was no sound. A fight broke out beside me and almost knocked me down. Fists flailed, the fighters cursed, a bottle smashed and its liquid spread rapidly over the ancient paving stones. People separated the two men, who still attempted to kick each other. More drunken singing from in front - O Little Town of Bethlehem. I began to pace restlessly to warm myself and I came up against my pastor, looking gaunt.
“How are you enjoying Christmas Eve in Bethlehem?” he asked.
I vented. I was disgusted by the drunkenness, I told him. By the gangs of roaming, lecherous youth. Fights. Lights. Pieces of the true manger for sale glued to snow-white cardboard. Soldiers and guns and danger and menace. It was nothing like Christmas, nothing remotely close to the heart of Christmas. It was a disgrace.
The pastor stared at me. “It is Christmas. It is precisely the first Christmas.”
The cold deepened. More bottles were passed. On the screen grey and white shadows drifted back and forth. There was more drunken singing, though most people stood silently, staring at the screen. A man reeking of wine passed out against me and fell to the hard, smooth stones. I looked at him. I took my hands from my pockets, knelt and wiped the spittle from the man’s face. I tried to wake him up but he would not stir. So I held the stranger’s head in my lap. Finally, close to Christ, I worshiped.