The biblical town of Bethlehem marked its second straight Christmas Eve under the shadow of the coronavirus—with small crowds and gray, gloomy weather dampening celebrations Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus. A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic by Israel— the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank—kept international tourists away for a second consecutive year, reports the AP. The ban is meant to slow the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, which has shaken Christmas celebrations around the world. Instead, local authorities were counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits.
It was a theme seen around the world as revelers, weary from nearly two years of lockdowns and safety restrictions, searched for ways to revive customs and celebrate safely with loved ones. Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the town was optimistic that 2021 would be better than last year’s Christmas, when even local residents stayed home due to lockdown restrictions. Bethlehem planned a return of its traditional marching band parades and street celebrations. “Last year, our festival was virtual, but this year it will be face to face,” Salman said. Scout bands marched through Manger Square banging drums and holding flags ahead of the expected arrival from Jerusalem of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land. “I hope that this COVID will finish,” Pizzaballa said as he left Jerusalem, saying there needs to be a balance between public health and community life. "We need to find this balance and we are all working for this because it’s very sad to see the Old City (of Jerusalem) almost empty.”
By midday, several hundred people, nearly all of them Palestinians, milled about behind the barricades to celebrate the occasion. Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would host thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, bringing a strong dose of holiday spirit to the town and a huge jolt to the local economy. Those who attended tried to make the best of a difficult situation. Billy Stuart, an employee at the British Consulate in Jerusalem, said his experience in Bethlehem was uplifting, despite the smaller-than-hoped-for crowds. “The parade is amazing and I did not realize there were so many Palestinian bag pipers,” he said. (Read more Christmas Eve stories.)