The star marks The Spot
IF EVER a place name over-promises, it's Bethlehem. Only a fool would expect the town to deliver on the Christmas magic even hardened atheists have sung about over the years, yet still the word teases, playing havoc with expectations. To minimise the disappointment, we saved our trip until well into December; a sweaty walk around Manger Square and its year-round Christmas shops holding zero appeal.
I felt bad using a copy of the Christmas Story to prime Louis: he was hoping for straw and an actual stable at one point despite all my caveats. Luckily his inner consumer was as excited about the wooden crib scene I'd promised as finding the actual spot of the birth.
While our journey, in the borrowed work jeep, was always going to be easier than that fabled one on a donkey, Bethlehem's West Bank location means getting there is never straight forward - something even Dubya found out after Condi forced him to swap his helicopter for a car. "It's awful," he admitted, Rice's memoirs revealed, despite sweeping through the checkpoints that make life such hell for Palestinians. The town is barely 10km from Jerusalem but might as well be on another planet for most of its residents, something we found out later on while driving around, lost, trying to find the gap in the separation barrier we needed to leave. With no road signs to Jerusalem we had to stop and ask, yet queries about the location of our destination were met with shrugs from several locals.
"O little town" it most certainly isn't; sprawling concrete dump being more apt, with the graffiti on the monochrome wall that hems the town in on three sides providing the only colour on the way in and out. With a wave of the passport we popped through the small gap, and into a dystopian Alice in Wonderland where nothing was as it seemed and the street names on Google maps are bizarrely blank.
We were headed, naturally, for the Church of the Nativity and the star that marks That Spot. Or, the spot as randomly decreed by Emperor Constantine's mum, St Helena, who decided where to build the church. Maybe it was because my expectations were as blunt as one of our kitchen knives, or perhaps carrying our own baby gave the occasion an additional poignancy, but I did find the church atmospheric. I guess all the candles lit for blessings must have got my inner pyromaniac into the mood.
Church aside, the real draw was the turning on of the Christmas lights in Manger Square. We waited patiently for what felt like hours along with thousands of locals. Personally, I think they should have turned on the lights BEFORE the interminable speeches because all was as dark as the carol says until the Palestinian PM flicked the switch. A highlight was the hiatus while the mosque opposite the Church of the Nativity called its faithful - two-thirds of Bethlehem's population today - to prayer.
This being Israel, or rather Palestine, something as simple as celebrating Christmas feels like a political act, essentially because it's such a big deal for the Palestinians (who get a day's holiday) and such a non-event for Israelis. Not that the politics bothered the three year old; what with the fireworks that followed the tree lighting and a souvenir snow globe with Mary and Jesus, Bethlehem's magic lives on - in his eyes at least.