BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian children excited about their second Christmas holiday this year (it was Christmas for Orthodox believers on Monday) saw their day off from school ruined by torrential rains and gale-force winds.
The fact that it’s a day off at all, though, is novel.
“The Christmas Season” has been decreed a national holiday by the Palestinian government, encompassing Christmas on Dec. 25, Monday’s Orthodox Christmas and the celebration of the local Armenian and Syrian Orthodox churches, which will take place on Jan. 18.
The Palestinian government is unifying Christmas and the achievement of “non-member observer state” status last September at the UN General Assembly in an an attempt to give the September vote the imprimatur of international recognition.
The adoption of Christmas as a national holiday, however, while welcomed by some, has left others perplexed or annoyed.
“We witness two nativities this year, the nativity of our Jesus Lord and the nativity of our state per certificate, for us this was very important, very significant and you can see the celebrations, the joyous atmosphere all over the city,” said Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun at a pre-Christmas ceremony, at which a 55-foot tree was lit.
In another pre-Christmas message, Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the senior Palestinian Catholic cleric here, told followers that this Yule celebrated both “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.”
“The path (to statehood) remains long,” he said, “and will require a united effort.”
In Bethlehem, not every Christian observer was elated by the linkage, though no one wanted to be quoted as diverging from the message.
Father David Neuhaus, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel, said the link between the birth of Christ and the birth of the Palestinian state was natural.
“The word nativity means birth. Saying that there has been another nativity is not a sacrilege,” he said. “They are not saying these two events have the same significance in the history of the world. They are simply linking the sense of joy and jubilation.”
“Within the circle of Palestinian national life, the announcement of the [UN] acceptance is a cause for great rejoicing. It seems these two things would quite naturally be linked and there’s no reason to take offense. Palestinian Catholics are very happy about what happened at the UN and that these two celebrations should be linked is no cause for scandal.”
Neuhaus pointed out that in his Jerusalem congregation, which serves Catholics who live in Israel and pray in Hebrew, a mass is usually held to thank God for Israel’s independence on Independence Day and prayers are said for soldiers serving in the army.
“We are all one church,” he said. “But certain people might be jarred by certain expressions.”
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custodian of the Holy Land, meanwhile, was noticeably absent from the tree-lighting ceremony.
“I don’t want to get into politics, but the event became most importantly a civil, national event so I decided not to be part of it,” he said.
It was the first opportunity the Palestinian government had to publicly celebrate the UN vote, he said, but the “celebration in Bethlehem should be joyful and celebratory in all senses, it should be for children and should reflect joy in the entire world, not a political moment.”
That said, he added, there is no tension between the Catholic Church and the Palestinian Authority. “There are two different agendas,” he explained.
Palestinian government spokeswoman Nour Odeh was diplomatic.
“We look forward to Christmas as Palestinians. All of us look forward to Christmas. It’s something we celebrate for generations,” she said. “Christmas has always had a special place in every Palestinian’s heart, Muslim or Christian.”
Jamal Khader, chair of the department of religion studies and dean of the faculty of arts at Bethlehem University, where Neuhaus also teaches and where the subject has been a matter of some debate, said it makes sense to celebrate the birth of Christ and the Palestinian state, since both offer a hope for the future.
“What I believe is that Christmas as the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, new life, a new start for all of us Christians facing the New Year, in which we are supported by our faith,” he said. “A new life is a sign of hope in the future. The recognition of Palestine as a UN non-member state is a sign of hope for a better future here in Palestine. This reflects an understanding of the conflict here.”
“I know there some are Christians in Bethlehem who are uncomfortable by putting it all together, liturgy and politics, but I don’t know why.”