Despite a second year of travel restrictions because of COVID-19, the town of Bethlehem, the site of Jesus’ birth, is reviving its annual Christmas Eve celebration.
“Last year, our festival was virtual, but this year it will be face to face with popular participation,” Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told the Associated Press.
On a typical Christmas, the biblical town is a popular destination for tourists from around the globe. An average of 3 million tourists come each year. Much smaller crowds attended the holiday celebrations in Bethlehem on Friday, accompanied by gloomy weather.
“It’s very strange,” said Kristel Elayyan, a Dutch woman married to a Palestinian, who came to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. “If it’s one year, it’s an interesting experience,” she told Agence France-Presse. “But because this is the second year and we don’t know what is going to come in the future, it’s a huge loss for the people here.”
Events included traditional marching band parades and street celebrations. Scout bands with drums and flags gathered in Manger Square to celebrate the holiday.
While celebrations are scaled down this year, Salman is hopeful that 2021’s festivities will exceed last year’s, when residents were forced to celebrate inside their homes because of lockdown restrictions, the AP reported.
Israel’s ban on nearly all incoming air traffic, which has lasted two years, continues to prevent tourists from entering the occupied West Bank, and subsequently, the historic town.
The travel ban to curb the spread of COVID-19 was lifted in November to allow foreign tourists in but was soon reimposed with the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant. Coinciding with the holiday season, the disease’s newest strain has hampered Christmas celebrations.
Without the flood of tourists, local authorities hoped that the Holy Land’s small Christian community would keep the holiday spirit alive.
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, celebrated a midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.
“Compared to last year’s Christmas, the participation is much greater, and this is an encouraging sign,” he told the masked congregation, but regretted the absence of foreign worshippers because of the pandemic.
“We pray for them and at the same time ask for their prayers, so that all this may end soon and that the city of Bethlehem may once again be full of pilgrims,” he said, according to AFP.