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Bethlehem Christmas Unforgettable

December 25, 1988|CHARLES N. BARNARD | Barnard is a free-lance writer living in Cos Cob, Conn

There was a moment near the end of my El Al flight from New York City when the captain announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are near Israel . . . in a few minutes we will cross the coastline."

Then strains of music came from the plane's speakers and hushed the cabin like a lullaby. Softly, as if rehearsed, most of the passengers joined in singing Hebrew words that I did not understand but somehow felt in my bones.

"What was that?" I asked my companion as the song faded. "What were you singing?"

"It is 'Havenu Shalom Aleichem,' " she said, as if I should have known. "We always sing it. It means 'We Bring Peace Among You.' "

I heard "Havenu Shalom Aleichem" for the first time last year when I went to Israel for Christmas.

Standing in front of a TV camera in rainy Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, a U.S. network TV reporter says what is always said in Manger Square on Dec. 24: "For a few hours each year, this small town and its Church of the Nativity becomes the center of the Christian world."

But I have also heard the muzzein calling Muslims to prayer on this day, and have seen Jews holding Bar Mitzvahs at the Western Wall.

Religious tolerance . . . peace on Earth. That's what Christmas is supposed to bring to the world. And tension or not, Bethlehem is where Christmas begins.

This is what it was like to be there last year--and to understand anew that we travel not to places, but to illusions.

I made my first trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem on the afternoon of Dec. 23, 1987. I wanted to see the Church of the Nativity and the crypt where Jesus was born before the next day's Christmas Eve crowds made that impossible. I left Israel's capital city in a cold rain, driving south on the road that has been there since the Romans. I was with Raphael and Avraham, a Jew and an Arab.

Bethlehem was only a few miles away, but progress was slow. We were stopped at several military checkpoints, where Israeli soldiers in wet ponchos shone flashlight beams at our faces and then waved us along.

With unrest among West Bank Arabs, there was concern that terrorists would try to disrupt the traditional Bethlehem procession and the next day's Midnight Mass.

We found a place to park the car and then ducked through a small, low door that is the entrance to the dark Byzantine church on the site where Christ was born. We followed stone stairs down to the Grotto of the Nativity.

The small niche in the craggy stone wall reminded me of a fireplace with a marble hearth. Seventeen polished lanterns hung, some lighted with candles. A silver star was attached to the floor. Pilgrims knelt to kiss its shining metal. Candle smoke scented the air, and we heard the murmur of prayers.

The crypt--a limestone cave--is a close, cluttered space with many lights, stars, mosaics, lanterns, canopies and other ornaments hanging from the soot-blackened ceiling. It does not bear any resemblance, I noted, to the barnyard-style mangers we build on church lawns at home.

In St. Catherine's basilica, connected to the older Church of the Nativity, TV cameras, lights and cables were already in place for worldwide broadcast of the Mass.

We drove back to Jerusalem in the rain. There were more soldiers along the route. They huddled in doorways, all armed with assault rifles.

I awakened on the morning of Christmas Eve to heavy fog and more rain. We would do some sightseeing early, then go back to Bethlehem about 7 p.m.

Impatient, prickly Raphael didn't think much of the idea in weather like this. "We'll take a quick look," he said. "You'll see. It is the same every year. A sideshow."

Some of Bethlehem's main streets were decorated with strings of Christmas lights--red, white and yellow. Random spurts of fireworks etched colored arcs across the rain-streaked sky.

We were finally forced to park and walk the rest of the way uphill toward Manger Square. A sign over a Mexican restaurant read, "We have tacos and hamburgers." The smell of frying meat drifted with the rain. Nasser's Market was brightly lighted, and the Classy Lady beauty parlor was doing a big business.

Israeli soldiers lined the streets; they looked bundled and over-inflated in shiny, wet foul-weather uniforms. They carried full combat gear: helmets, radios, live ammunition, many types of weapons.

Military vehicles parked with their engines running. As we approached the square, I heard English Christmas carols coming from a public-address system. "We three kings of Orient are."

A final security checkpoint just off the square looked like a collection of plywood boxes with doors.

Finally I walked into Manger Square. It was a gently tilted, black-topped rectangle about 200 by 300 feet. It was brightly lighted by many lines of colored bulbs strung from a tall pole at the square's center.

Strings of plastic pennants also radiated from the pole. With all the lights and flags, it could have been a Los Angeles used-car lot on a rainy night.

"The first noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay."

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