Watch CBSN Live

Holiday Spirit Scant In Bethlehem

There is no Christmas tree in Aida Ghaneim's Bethlehem home this year. No festive lights hang from the ceiling, and the 48-year-old mother of four has no plans to cook her usual feast.

It is not that Ghaneim is abandoning Christmas. On the contrary, she said, "It abandoned us."

A shriveling economy, continuing Israeli restrictions and other hardships caused by three years of Mideast violence have left Christians living in the traditional birthplace of Jesus with little desire to celebrate.

Few of Bethlehem's usual decorations are in place: A Santa outside one shop, a few lights outside another. Many of the red, green and blue lights strung over the streets around Manger Square are burned out.

The Palestinian Authority, saying it lacks the money, refused the town its usual $100,000 decoration budget, forcing local officials to scrounge up $10,000 on their own.

"The whole atmosphere of Christmas is gone," said Jane Bandak, 18, whose family's traditional 30-person Christmas meal will shrink to half a dozen guests this year.

Some Christians have decided to ignore the holiday that was once the high point of their year. Others have fled abroad, splitting up their families. About 2,000 of the town's 28,000 Christians have left during the recent violence, local officials say. They now make up only 35 percent of a town they once dominated.

Checkpoints, curfews and closures, enforced by Israel to stop Palestinian suicide bombings that have killed more than 400 Israelis over the past three years, make it hard for families spread across the West Bank to get together.

Israel says it plans to ease travel restrictions for Palestinian Christians over the holiday, but many Palestinians are skeptical. They say they do not want to spend their holiday waiting at roadblocks.

Before the violence flared, Christmas Eve was an all-night reunion for the Ghaneim family.

Between 30 and 40 relatives came from all over, from Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jenin and even Jordan to roast chestnuts, play cards, exchange gifts, and drink anise and beer in Ghaneim's home.

"No one slept. The few who did were on the couch and on the floor," she said.

On Christmas Day, she would spend the morning visiting relatives and then serve a feast of stuffed chicken and chunks of lamb with rice and yogurt for as many as 20 people.

Now, Ghaneim's family is in debt. One son is in school, a second is unemployed and her third son is abroad looking for work. Her husband also left, heading for the Ivory Coast to seek a job. Though her family has not been directly hit by the violence, "Every mother gets affected when she sees others' kids dying," she said.

Tired, cash-poor and depressed, she canceled her usual 10-day pre-Christmas shopping spree and has not gone to church once in recent days, though she used to attend every day in the week before Christmas.

The Christmas Eve party has disappeared amid the violence and restrictions. The Christmas feast is gone as well.

She plans to eat Christmas lunch with just her mother-in-law and father-in-law, and she has no plans to cook anything festive.

"I'm so demoralized, I can't invite anybody this year," she said. "My heart is closed."

Much of Maha Saca's family has gone abroad as well, and in a personal protest of the conditions here, the 50-year-old crafts shop owner has decided to forego her usual Christmas tree, straining under the weight of tiny Santas and green and red ornaments.

"I feel ashamed to celebrate anything," she said.

The Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem's Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, complained that while Christians around the world prepare to sing Christmas carols harking to this town, few appear concerned with the plight of the place where Jesus was born.

"The majority of Christians really don't know what is going on in the little town of Bethlehem," he said.

By Ravi Nessman