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Christmas will be quiet in Bethlehem as destruction continues in Gaza

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The city of Bethlehem is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It's a Palestinian city that would usually be preparing to have its moment at Christmas. But as NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports, the war between Israel and Hamas and the vast destruction in Gaza has caused many of this year's celebrations to be canceled.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER SANDING TOOLS)

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: In Jack Giacaman's wood shop right off Manger Square, workers sand down figurines of Mary cradling the baby Jesus...

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD KNOCKING TOGETHER)

LONSDORF: ...And stamp out Christmas tree ornaments...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAND SANDING WOOD)

LONSDORF: ...One after the other. Burlap sacks on the ground are overflowing with pieces of nativity sets - wooden sheep and wisemen.

JACK GIACAMAN: Every day in my shop, it's Christmas Day.

LONSDORF: Giacaman's shop is called Christmas House. He's the third-generation woodcarver in a family with deep roots in Bethlehem. He says his workers are now making stock for next year's holiday season. This one is already a bust.

GIACAMAN: This year we were in the - preparing for the high season. Suddenly, we went to zero sales.

LONSDORF: The war that started with the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 has completely upended tourism here in Bethlehem. New Israeli checkpoints, which Israel says it needs to maintain its security, have made travel into, out of and around the West Bank even more complicated than usual. And with so much destruction in Gaza and a Palestinian death toll now around 20,000, there's just too much sadness. Celebrating just doesn't feel right.

GIACAMAN: My two daughters, they are 14 and 18 years. They said, we don't have the feeling to put the Christmas tree.

LONSDORF: Normally, he says, they have a huge tree full of lights.

GIACAMAN: This year, no lights - just a simple nativity set on a simple table.

LONSDORF: It's not just Giacaman's family. Bethlehem is usually bedazzled with decoration, covered in lights and sparkle, with a big parade full of musicians that marches through the labyrinth-like streets. This year, it's dark and quiet.

While Bethlehem is the town nearly synonymous with Christmas, many Palestinian churches and Christian communities in the West Bank, Jerusalem and beyond have decided to call off the celebration and good cheer that usually accompanies the holiday. Most religious aspects - midnight mass and sermons - are happening, but the focus is on the faith.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Latin).

LONSDORF: Inside the Church of the Nativity - the centerpiece of the old city - down a small flight of steps in the back, a group sings at the spot that tradition holds as the place where Jesus was born. It's marked with a metal star on the ground, where pilgrims come to touch the stone. It's also where thousands of local Palestinian Christians come to worship.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOLS RUNNING)

LONSDORF: But today, the church is so empty that a few construction workers are doing restoration work on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAWING)

LONSDORF: Usually, they say, it would be so packed here in the weeks before Christmas, they'd never be able to get this work done. Linda Nocera stands nearby. She's from the U.S. and has made several trips to Israel inspired by her Christian faith. This is her first to Bethlehem. She says she agrees with the call for a somber Christmas this year.

LINDA NOCERA: Because of all the terrible killing that has taken place. It's terrible, heart-wrenching, and I believe it's not of God in any way, shape or form.

LONSDORF: The only other visitors in the church are 18-year-old Noor Salahat and her dad. They're Muslim Palestinians from the northern part of the West Bank.

NOOR SALAHAT: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Noor says she knew the celebrations were cancelled, but she still wanted to come to learn about other religions and other cultures, especially during a holy time.

Up the hill and through the winding alleyways is the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. It's beautiful, with stained glass windows and Arabic script circling a dome on the ceiling.

MUNTHER ISAAC: Glory to God in the highest. Peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

LONSDORF: Father Munther Isaac shows us around. He takes us over to a corner normally where the Christmas tree is. But this year the congregation has set up the Nativity set with baby Jesus resting in a pile of rubble like the scenes from Gaza, while the other characters - Mary, Joseph and the wisemen - all run to try to pull him out.

ISAAC: It was inspired by the images we see on our TV screens of children being constantly pulled from under the rubble.

LONSDORF: Father Isaac says especially this Christmas, he wants to deromanticize the story around the holiday.

ISAAC: In reality, it's a story of a baby who was born in the most difficult circumstances under the Roman Empire and their occupation, who survived a massacre of children himself when he was born.

LONSDORF: The image has attracted a lot of international attention. He says he hopes it will make people think about how Palestinians are feeling right now.

ISAAC: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Christians around the world will read about Bethlehem and think about Bethlehem. And I hope they realize that Bethlehem is not a fairy-tale town. Bethlehem is a real town today.

LONSDORF: Filled with people who are struggling to make sense of a war that is so close physically, emotionally and spiritually. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Bethlehem, in the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SCHULTZ'S "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.