Thousands of pilgrims and tourists were not in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve due to COVID : NPR

For the second year, the Christmas Eve celebration in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem has been snuffed out by pandemic precautions.


The annual Christmas parade took place today in Bethlehem.


SHAPIRO: The Palestinian city in the West Bank holds a big Christmas party every year. But for the second consecutive year of the pandemic, it was mainly for locals – minus the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who would normally make up a festive crowd. NPR’s Daniel Estrin joins us from Bethlehem. Salvation.


SHAPIRO: Let’s start with what they’re doing today because there were still festivities. How did that happen ?

ESTRIN: You know, it’s been a lot of fun. There were thousands of Palestinian scouts. They played in 25 marching bands. They marched through the city. So imagine bagpipes, trombones, tubas, drums. They had pom poms, capes, batons and colorful uniforms. It was beautiful. They were only 6 years old and I met one who is a scout leader who is 70 years old. So it’s this beautiful annual tradition. They accompany the Patriarch of Jerusalem as he travels to Bethlehem.

And last year, only a few local scout troops were invited because of the pandemic. And this year was different. The city wanted to organize a big Christmas. They invited Palestinian Christian Scout troops from many different towns and villages. And, you know, the marching bands just rocked this town. And Bethlehem desperately needs a pulse after two very difficult years.

SHAPIRO: Funny – I don’t think bagpipes are a traditional Middle Eastern instrument. But how are people taking this year, given everything they’ve been through? I mean, it’s usually Bethlehem’s big day, and it’s a lot smaller.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I mean, before the pandemic, I remember coming here on Christmas Eve, and meeting, for example, visitors from Kentucky who were thrilled to be in the birthplace of Jesus on Christmas. And I remember once seeing a large group of visitors from Kenya queuing to kneel down at the Church of the Nativity and touch the spot where tradition says Jesus was born. And this year is the second Christmas without pilgrims or tourists. Israel has kept its borders almost entirely closed to foreign travellers, and since Israel controls all entry into the West Bank, that means Bethlehem has also been cut off. The mayor told me the city had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. And at least half of the city depends on tourism for its income. So this year, the city wanted to organize festivities. They encouraged Palestinian citizens of Israel to holiday here, so there is joy this year.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the drop in tourist numbers, what has been the impact of COVID on the West Bank?

ESTRIN: Well, last year there were lockdowns, and it was really, really devastating for the economy. Today, the number of infections is quite low in the West Bank and about 44% of Palestinians are double vaccinated. So far, they’ve only discovered a handful of omicron cases. That could change. And in Israel, they are starting to impose new restrictions. They expect an outbreak of omicron in Israel within weeks.

SHAPIRO: So what is the message people want to send on this day when Bethlehem is in the spotlight?

ESTRIN: Well, let me tell you the story of a man I met, Adnan al-Qurna. He runs the King Solomon Bazaar. He sells cribs. It’s a souvenir shop. And during the pandemic, he had practically no business. But he shows up at his shop anyway because he says he wants to feel alive.

ADNAN AL-QURNA: We hope business picks up. It won’t be soon, according to the news. But without hope, there is no life.

ESTRIN: It’s something I’ve heard over and over again from the people of Bethlehem this Christmas – without hope there is no life.

SHAPIRO: NPR’s Daniel Estrin at the annual Christmas Eve celebration in Bethlehem. Thank you very much.

ESTRIN: Thank you.

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