BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Even the Christmas decorations seem more cheerful this year in Bethlehem.
A new display of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh were about to alight at the main traffic circle on Manger Street, and a big white Christmas tree made of lights perched merrily next to them. The official Christmas tree in Nativity Square was a focus of great commotion as pilgrims and locals struck poses for photos and selfies Dec. 5. A few days earlier, at the official tree lighting ceremony, the square was packed with hundreds of onlookers ready to welcome the Christmas season to the birthplace of Jesus.
After two Christmas seasons in which the political reality had overtaken holiday cheer, people seemed primed to finally feel some merriment in Bethlehem. In 2014, the summer Gaza war was still keeping away tourists, and last year a spate of stabbings and shootings overshadowed any hope of holiday cheer.
This year, the Israeli separation barrier construction continues to slowly creep around Bethlehem, creating an isolated enclave. There has been no real move toward a long-term peace agreement, nor any easing of travel restrictions or any significant improvement in the economic or political situations, but Palestinians are embracing what they can of the holiday spirit.
Storekeepers like Muslim Samer Laham, 37, whose front entrance displays rows of hanging Santa Claus hats, are putting out their Christmas wares and readying for the celebrations.
“People haven’t started buying the hats yet, but they will in a few more days,” said Laham confidently.
Ashraf and Shahad Natsheh, who are also Muslim, took the afternoon to come from Hebron, West Bank, to take pictures of their 10-month-old daughter Na’ara in front of the official Bethlehem Christmas tree with its life-sized creche and gold-colored ornaments.
“The atmosphere is definitely better than last year, the roads are open and there is more calm,” said Shahad Natsheh, 26. “We come to see the tree because it is beautiful.”
Ian Knowles, the British director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre on historic Star Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare into the city center, said although people are still a bit apprehensive about the general situation, “Christmas hope still flickers.”
Seeing the apparent defeat of Islamic State in several battles in Iraq and Syria has also brought a sense of optimism to the Christian community, which had harbored fears that they might be next if the militants were not stopped, he said.
“People here have family in Jordan and Lebanon, and they were feeling (that this) could happen to them,” said Knowles. “Now they are watching as Christians are slowly returning to their churches and celebrating Masses in the charred remains.”
Catholic tattoo artist Walid Ayash, 39, and his staff stayed up almost half the night cleaning his tattoo studio and barber shop and putting up Christmas decorations.
“Two days ago they lit up the Christmas tree in the city. Everybody is happy. The kids are happy. I have four kids and they are happy,” he said. “Last year it was very sad, the situation was bad, but we hope this year will be better than before.”
“I want to be happy with my family. I am very religious. I thank God I am in Bethlehem. We celebrate. My workers dress like Santa Claus and throw candy for the children. The kids will be here, the atmosphere will be happy. You know, it’s Christmas,” he said.
Cradling one of his white doves – “peace pigeons” as he has dubbed them – in his hands in their rooftop roost above Star Street, Anton Ayoub Mussalam, 75, who is Catholic, said everyone is waiting for Christmas.
From 1987 until 2015, he and his wife, Mary had not had permission to go to Jerusalem, where one of their daughters lives.
“Maybe there will be a happy Christmas,” Mussalam said. “We hope everyone will be happy. We hope there will be a small piece of peace. We need peace like we need food and water.”