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Date posted: December 28, 2006
By Margo Sabella for MIFTAH

Channeling the spirit of Christmas in Palestine is a hard thing to do. Despite the outward appearances of things it is hard to believe that it is that time of the year again in the land where Christmas was supposedly created. Yesterday, as I stood on Manger Square waiting for the annual Christmas Eve Day procession to start, all I could think of was the irony of the situation.

Here we were standing just a few feet from the traditional birthplace of Christ and yet all around signs of peace and contentment were largely missing. The only sentiment I felt was a tense sense of putting on appearances; making believe that it was a joyous occasion. The sad truth is I doubt that anyone, except the children perhaps, were experiencing any thoughts of excitement.

I suppose it is a universal feeling to be stressed around the holidays; more so in Palestine. People go through the motions of putting up the tree, baking cookies and wrapping gifts in order to fool themselves into believing that it is a festive occasion, a time set apart from the rest of the year as one that promises renewal and redemption. The anxiety I think most Palestinians experience around the holidays, has nothing to do with the commercial aspects of buying gifts or the nervousness of the inevitability of dealing with annoying relatives.

Rather, our stress comes from the fact that we are powerless. During this holiday of hope and peace, we are all desperately surrounded by people who have lost all faith in finding a normal existence and who have resolved themselves to the reality of living in constant turmoil. Where do we find our salvation; from the walls that sneakily stole land and locked us into enclaves? From the gun-toting militias creating havoc on Palestinian streets? Or from the pointless summits between high-ranking officials that are simply not believable any more? Or is it perhaps from the unfair vilification of Palestinians as a people that have allegedly missed every opportunity of reconciliation offered, when it is we that have sacrificed the most, compromised the most? Is it too much to expect that the media coverage on this day of all days to be any less superficial than on the other day of the year?

Do miracles happen? I suppose they might if you are willing to believe, but it hard to do so when on almost every face you meet all you see is the weariness in peoples eyes. While one of my favorite Christmas Carols is Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, I wonder whether when anyone elsewhere in the world sings along to its words, or any other hymn for that matter, they can visualize anything but a tranquil fairytale scene. It is with much heartbreak and sorrow that I shatter the illusion; Bethlehem is not a mythological place. It is very real, made more so by the harsh reality that its inhabitants, and all Palestinians in the Holy Land, have to endure.

Bethlehem is anything but serene, yet all hearts turn to this little town with prayers of peace today, but if the power of prayer has failed to save Palestinians, how can people sending up their wishes to the Child that was born here two millennia ago, expect that their prayers be heard? I think it is the saddest thing to lose ones faith, but it is easy for those who live miles across the oceans to hold on to their belief that prayers can be answered, to believe that all is well in the world, to believe in the inherent goodness of people. It is easy to believe in all that when you have never experienced living in a low-intensity conflict, or a full-blown war, when you have never lost your home in a natural disaster, or when you have never been separated from your family members eternally oblivious to their fate.

The way most people celebrate Christmas represents all what is wrong in the world today; it has become devoid of any spirituality. The world is full of sadness, and perhaps most people want to deny the existence of misery during this one day of the year. Whereas you may consider these sentiments negative, I consider them reality, for isnt Christmas supposed to be about remembering the less fortunate; not only those who live in poverty, but also those who crave justice, whose voices are constantly drowned out by powerful misinformation campaigns? While most people want to understandably indulge themselves during this holiday, it is only fitting that they actually care about the place where their faith originated, at the very least.

But I am doubtful that this will happen. The media focus on the Nativity Church on Christmas Eve barely makes a dent in peoples consciousness. Sure, Christmas celebrated by Palestinians in the heart of the Middle East conflict is newsworthy, but only in as much as to paint an even bleaker picture of life under occupation that goes on and on and on during the other 364 days out of the year. And who wants to hear the depressing news that Bethlehem is in a sad and sorry state? That its inhabitants are prisoners in their own city? That people from the outside world, even other Palestinians like me, have a hard time accessing Bethlehem during the rest of the year?

It is very hard to believe that a morally spent system of military occupation can respect anyones religious beliefs or understand the spirituality of Christmas and the Christian faith, in this specific instance. It is laughable that the Israeli authorities actually think that they are being religiously tolerant by letting people in and out of their hideous terminal at the entrance to Bethlehem when it should be a given right; the presence of the towering concrete wall encircling the desolate town only serves to reinforce all false pretenses of goodwill.

Despite the fact that my Christmas is imbued with all sorts of complexities, I am grateful for it, for reminding me of what is really important; friends and family and acknowledging that their presence in my life makes it richer and more meaningful, that even amidst the chaos of living under occupation; there are many reasons to be happy. So, in spite of my cynicism, there is still a small part of me that wants so much to believe in the Christmas Miracle, if only deferred for another year.

Margo Sabella is a member of the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org

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Source: MIFTAH
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