Oh Christmas tree!

December 22, 2013
Sarah Benton

This stocking filler has lots of pictures of Christmas trees and these items:
1) Palestine Pulse: Palestinians fight Israeli attempts to claim Bethlehem;
2) Voxxi / Global Post: Palestine nationalizes Christmas from last January, the PA makes all Christmas dates a national holiday;
3) KKL-JNF: KKL-JNF Christmas Tree Distribution 2013, a PR note about winning friends with trees;
4) Virtual Jerusalem: Israeli Military prepping for Christmas in Bethlehem, having made it almost impossible for Palestinian Christians to get through the checkpoints to Bethlehem last year, the IDF realises it might have made a mistake;
5) Guardian: My home used to be a Christmas-free zone. No longer, Jonathan Freedland;

MCC Palestine update: Bethlehem-area activists hang tear gas grenades and other U.S.-made crowd control weapons used by the Israeli military in nearby Aida Refugee Camp on trees decorated for Christmas in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, West Bank, December 2, 2013. The decorations in Manger Square and the Christmas season celebrations in Bethlehem are partly funded by USAID. Activists aimed to raise awareness among the many tourists visiting Bethlehem during the holiday season that U.S. military aid provides many of the weapons used by Israeli forces against the Palestinian people. Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a relief, community development and peace agency of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in Canada and the United States.

A Palestinian vendor sells balloons and Christmas hats at Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 1, 2013. Photo by Ammar Awad / Reuters

A Palestinian man dressed up as Santa Claus and carrying a Christmas tree as he walks along the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Palestinian celebration of Christmas is a form of defiance especially in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Last year “municipal chief rabbis were instructed to rescind kashrut (kosher) certificates from businesses with Christmas trees” (Ha’aretz).  cf Freedland, 5th item. Photo by AFP

Palestinians fight Israeli attempts to claim Bethlehem

By Daoud Kuttab, Palestine Pulse / Al Monitor
November 29, 2013

As the Christmas season approaches and as tourism to the Holy Land rises, the fight over holy sites has also escalated. The Palestinian Ministry of Information published on its website a report citing an official complaint by the Palestinian ambassador in Rome, Mai al-Kalia, against Israel, which is trying to appropriate Bethlehem.

According to the Palestinian ministry, the Israeli tourism office in Rome has published touristic literature stating that “Israel, thanks to a wide range of unique sites such as the old port of Jaffa, and Nazareth, Jerusalem and Tiberias, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Masada, the Dead Sea, Fort Herod and caves near Qumran …” Four of the sites mentioned lie in the Palestinian territories, but Israel is advertising them as part of Israel in an attempt to attract Christian pilgrims from Italy.

The Palestinian diplomat, according to the report, will file an official complaint to the Italian Foreign Ministry accusing the Israeli tourism office of publishing “false information.”

Palestinian efforts in Italy have been matched by a popular movement in Bethlehem itself. Young Palestinians holding signs in different languages protested outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Nov. 28. Their message was simple: Bethlehem is a Palestinian town.

The diplomatic and public activity was also echoed in a powerful message penned by the city’s first female mayor, Vera Baboun, and addressed to US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit earlier this month. While specifying how the region could benefit from tourism, Baboun rejects any exclusively economic solutions without serious efforts to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She said, “No true economic development is possible as long as Israel continues its occupation of our country. As the World Bank confirmed a few weeks ago, we continue to lose billions of dollars because of the Israeli occupation.”

Israeli officials have stated that tourism to the Holy Land has experienced a recent boom. Between January and June 2013, the number of tourists who arrived in Israel reached 1.7 million, many of them making the short trip to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

The Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem continues to operate, but the Israelis have relaxed measures for tourists, announcing on its website that tourists can easily pass the checkpoint. The official Israeli tourism site states in its frequently asked questions section, “Crossing from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is direct, easy and no prior authorization is required. Hundreds of tourists make the crossing in both directions every day.”

A Palestinian flag is added as the final decoration for a Christmas tree in Bethlehem, Dec 14 2012 Photo by Ahmed Mazhar / WAFA

Palestinians do not receive the same privilege as visiting tourists. They are not allowed free movement in and out of their own city, but must obtain a travel pass to cross the same checkpoint that tourists are waved through without any delay.

The jewel in Bethlehem’s crown is the Church of the Nativity built by Queen Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 327. The church is being renovated after years of neglect and deterioration. With the state of Palestine being admitted to UNESCO and the international organization recognizing the Church of the Nativity as a protected heritage site, joint work on the restoration effort became possible. The Palestinian government has contributed $2.6 million toward the project. An Italian company, Piacente Spa, has been entrusted with supervising the restoration efforts.

While Palestinian diplomatic and public efforts have focused on Israeli attempts to misrepresent Bethlehem, the announcement by the Israeli tourism office in Italy also names other sites that are clearly part of Palestine. The location of the Herodian castle and the Qumran caves are part of the West Bank. These locations constitute what Palestinians hope will become their independent state as part of the universally accepted two-state solution.

Tourism and politics often collide, and recent efforts by officials and the general public clearly show that the Palestinians will stand up to Israeli efforts to appropriate tourist and pilgrimage sites, even if it occupies these locations.

Christian worshippers and tourists celebrate at the Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Monday, Dec. 24, 2012. Thousands of Christian worshippers from Palestine and tourists arrived in Bethlehem on Monday to mark Christmas at the site where many believe Jesus Christ was born. Photo by Adel Hana / AP

Palestine nationalizes Christmas

By Voxxi / Global Post
January 08, 2013

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian children excited about their second Christmas holiday this year (it’s Christmas for Orthodox believers today) saw their day off from school ruined by torrential rains and gale-force winds.
The fact that it’s a day off at all, though, is novel.

“The Christmas Season” has been decreed a national holiday by the Palestinian government, encompassing Christmas on Dec. 25, today’s Orthodox Christmas and the celebration of the local Armenian and Syrian Orthodox churches, which will take place on Jan. 18.

The Palestinian government unified Christmas and the achievement of “non-member observer state” status last September at the UN General Assembly in an attempt to give the September vote the imprimatur of international recognition.

The adoption of Christmas as a national holiday, however, while welcomed by some, has left others perplexed or annoyed.
“We witness two nativities this year, the nativity of our Jesus Lord and the nativity of our state per certificate, for us this was very important, very significant and you can see the celebrations, the joyous atmosphere all over the city,” said Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun at a pre-Christmas ceremony, at which a 55-foot tree was lit.

In another pre-Christmas message, Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the senior Palestinian Catholic cleric here, told followers that this Yule celebrated both “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.”
“The path (to statehood) remains long,” he said, “and will require a united effort.”

In Bethlehem, not every Christian observer was elated by the linkage, though no one wanted to be quoted as diverging from the message.

Father David Neuhaus, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel, said the link between the birth of Christ and the birth of the Palestinian state was natural.

“The word nativity means birth. Saying that there has been another nativity is not a sacrilege,” he said. “They are not saying these two events have the same significance in the history of the world. They are simply linking the sense of joy and jubilation.”

“Within the circle of Palestinian national life, the announcement of the [UN] acceptance is a cause for great rejoicing. It seems these two things would quite naturally be linked and there’s no reason to take offense. Palestinian Catholics are very happy about what happened at the UN and that these two celebrations should be linked is no cause for scandal.”

Neuhaus pointed out that in his Jerusalem congregation, which serves Catholics who live in Israel and pray in Hebrew, a mass is usually held to thank God for Israel’s independence on Independence Day and prayers are said for soldiers serving in the army.

“We are all one church,” he said. “But certain people might be jarred by certain expressions.”

Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custodian of the Holy Land, meanwhile, was noticeably absent from the tree-lighting ceremony.

“I don’t want to get into politics, but the event became most importantly a civil, national event so I decided not to be part of it,” he said.

The lights are turned on at a public ceremony in Nablus, December 15, 2012. Photo by Ayman Nubana – WAFA

It was the first opportunity the Palestinian government had to publicly celebrate the UN vote, he said, but the “celebration in Bethlehem should be joyful and celebratory in all senses, it should be for children and should reflect joy in the entire world, not a political moment.”

That said, he added, there is no tension between the Catholic Church and the Palestinian Authority. “There are two different agendas,” he explained.

Palestinian government spokeswoman Nour Odeh was diplomatic.

“We look forward to Christmas as Palestinians. All of us look forward to Christmas. It’s something we celebrate for generations,” she said. “Christmas has always had a special place in every Palestinian’s heart, Muslim or Christian.”
Jamal Khader, chair of the department of religion studies and dean of the faculty of arts at Bethlehem University, where Neuhaus also teaches and where the subject has been a matter of some debate, said it makes sense to celebrate the birth of Christ and the Palestinian state, since both offer a hope for the future.

“What I believe is that Christmas as the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, new life, a new start for all of us Christians facing the New Year, in which we are supported by our faith,” he said. “A new life is a sign of hope in the future. The recognition of Palestine as a UN non-member state is a sign of hope for a better future here in Palestine. This reflects an understanding of the conflict here.”

“I know there are some Christians in Bethlehem who are uncomfortable by putting it all together, liturgy and politics, but I don’t know why.”

Arizona cedars grown by the JNF and distributed by the state to Christian embassies, institutions and selected individuals.

KKL-JNF Christmas Tree Distribution 2013

December 05, 2013

In keeping with its annual tradition, KKL-JNF will once again be distributing Christmas trees to local churches, monasteries, convents, embassies, foreign journalists and the general public as the holiday approaches. Distribution will take place in central and northern Israel, in accordance with lists provided by the Ministry of the Interior, the Municipality of Jerusalem and other bodies. Private individuals, too, can buy a tree for the token sum of 80 NIS.

KKL-JNF foresters grow Arizona cedars, which have been selected as the variety best suited to serve as attractive Christmas trees, in a special plot adjacent to the KKL-JNF offices in Givat Yishayahu in central Israel. The trees are brought over from KKL-JNF’s Eshtaol nursery as year-old saplings, and are carefully tended for another two years until they grow to a height of around two meters.

In northern Israel, KKL-JNF foresters grow plots of Arizona cedars in a variety of forests. As Christmas approaches, the foresters thin out the crowded woodlands and sell the trees to the general public for a token sum. This prevents illegal felling of the trees and allows people to enjoy the festive presence of a Christmas tree.

Israeli Military prepping for Christmas in Bethlehem

By Virtual Jerusalem
December 19, 2013

Israeli security personnel will be increased at crossings near Bethlehem to allow pilgrims and tourists comfortable access to the city, the Israel Defense Forces said.

IDF officials met on Wednesday with representatives from the Bethlehem Municipality, the Palestinians’ security forces, international organizations and religious representatives to coordinate preparations for the Christmas season. More than 300,000 visitors are expected to visit Bethlehem at Christmastime.

The IDF said in a statement that it also will facilitate the visit of an “unlimited” number of Christian Palestinians from the West Bank to Israel, and will authorize 200 special permits for Palestinians who reside abroad to visit the West Bank. Some 500 Palestinian Christians from Gaza, under aged 16 and over 35, will be allowed to visit Israel and the West Bank during the holiday season.

“Israel is making a significant effort to safeguard freedom of religion in the area, facilitate participation in religious ceremonies and ensure that Christians in the region enjoy the holiday spirit,” said Lt. Col. Eyal Zeevi, head of the Bethlehem District Coordination Office.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Fouad Twal carries a statuette of baby Jesus in Bethlehem, December 24, 2012. From Occupied Palestine.

My home used to be a Christmas-free zone. No longer

You don’t have to be a Christian to see the appeal of this season. Jews, Muslims and Hindus are getting in on the act

By Jonathan Freedland, Guardian
December 21, 2013

‘Moshe Zyman, manager of the Kosher Deli in Golders Green, told the Jewish Chronicle he’d had a run on turkeys.’ Photograph: Stone

We must have looked as if we were waging our own little war on Christmas. In the home I grew up in, we had no tree, gave no presents, cooked no turkey. Beyond our front door, we knew Christmas was happening. But inside the only clue was Morecambe and Wise on the TV. However, this was no boycott. We harboured no hostility towards the festive season. Rather, like other Jewish families, we simply thought Christmas had nothing to do with us. So deeply ingrained was this thinking, even to say the word – or to write out the first syllable in full, rather than deploying the get-out “Xmas” – carried a faint frisson of transgression. My most devout relative, a beloved great-aunt, would not let the word touch her lips, preferring instead the Yiddish kratzmach. That way she could avoid all reference to you-know-who.

I should stress that never once did I feel deprived by this yuletide absence. We had our own festivals, our own opportunities to open unwanted gifts and eat fattening food, thanks to Chanukah, whose shifting date on the calendar usually comes conveniently close to Christmas. And yet something has changed. On 25 December, my family will sit round a table and eat turkey. I can’t promise party hats, but the odd cracker may be opened. As the meal is prepared, there is a strong possibility seasonal music will be heard.

And we’re far from unique. Moshe Zyman, manager of the Kosher Deli in Golders Green, told the Jewish Chronicle he’d had a run on turkeys: “Two weeks before Christmas, we already had up to 100 orders. We always see quite a big demand.” Remember, these aren’t Jews who’ve forgotten their roots: they still care enough to eat kosher food. But on 25 December they want to eat turkey, just like everyone else.

The Christmas tree on Arafat square in the centre of Ramallah, December 14, 2013. Photo by Eloise Bollack

Other non-Christians seem to be making similar accommodations with Christmas. The Muslim Council of Britain has sent out a seasonal card with a rather plaintive subtext. “Don’t panic! Christmas is not banned,” it pleads, pre-emptively defending itself from that other great tradition of late December: the confected claim that politically correct deference to Islam is denying the great British majority its rightful customs. “None of us will be offended if you go ahead and enjoy the Christmas cheer,” says the MCB, adding that “some Muslims will join in those celebrations, remembering too that Jesus was an important prophet of Islam”.

They’ll be a minority, says the journalist Mehdi Hasan, who grew up in a Christmas-free zone similar to mine. But he too has seen a change across the generations. “Many nowadays have borrowed Christmas rituals and applied them or transferred them across to Eid,” he tells me. At the end of Ramadan the Hasan family exchange Eid gifts while the house is decorated with an “Eid tree”, an innovation that reminds me of the American Jewish families who put a fern in the corner of the living room and call it a “Chanukah bush”.

Perhaps Jews and Muslims are finally catching up with Hindus. With no single canonical text, they’ve long had an all-embracing approach to the customs of other faiths. There will be tinsel trees in British Hindu homes, just like the Santa decorations I saw all over Delhi a fortnight ago. Amit Chaudhuri’s evocative memoir of Calcutta describes Christmas there as “the loveliest in the world. Warm, convivial, unfolding in smoky weather, it had the vivacity of a transplanted custom that had flowered spontaneously, but still retained the air of an outing, of an encounter with the strange.”

The point is that the fear exemplified by my great-aunt is receding. Jews like her, who spoke of kratzmach, carried with them the memory of Christian Europe’s past, when the celebration of Jesus’s birth was often the cue to beat up Jews – a kind of dress rehearsal for the serious violence that regularly attended Easter. That memory has all but vanished now. For most contemporary Britons, the only terror Christmas threatens is indigestion.

What’s helped is that non-Christians have come to realise something that was not always obvious, to us at least: that most of what happens at Christmas is not Christian at all. The very thing that dispirits the churches – the secularisation of the festival – is what makes it open to those who are not followers of Jesus. So now we can separate out the bits that require Christian belief, put them to one side, and embrace instead those things which suggest a cosy winter festival – one that’s less faith and more family, food and the fireside.

But if that helps explain why non-Christians might be growing more comfortable with Christmas, it’s not the whole story. There is also, perhaps, a greater self-confidence among those outside the majority: we realise we can embrace this or that custom without losing our own, that a bit of integration does not always entail assimilation, in the sense of cultural corrosion. This might even be a tribute to the success of that now wholly unfashionable idea: multiculturalism.

Britain has shown sufficient respect to variety that smaller communities no longer feel they have to cling to their differences for those differences to survive. They can afford to let go, just a bit. There might even be a recognition that in a world of hyphenated identities – British-Hindu, British-Muslim, British-Jewish – both sides of that hyphen need asserting. Yes, those groups want and need to maintain what makes them – makes us – different. But we also need to give weight to what all Britons have in common: in this case, the week about to begin.

Which bring us to the heart of Christmas’s appeal, to me at any rate – a quality that only becomes more precious in today’s world of constant, always-on, connection. It’s obvious that everyone needs a holiday. But usually when we take time off, we have that nagging sense that everyone else is still working. For many, that can mean anxious peeks at the phone, worrying what message or email is waiting there unanswered.

Decorating the tree, Beit Sahour, a Palestinian Christian community east of Jerualem, December 11. Photo by Wafa.

At Christmas, that guilt vanishes. For a few days we can relax, safe in the knowledge that our colleagues are doing the same. True, some have to keep working through this period: we rely on them. But for most, the office or school or shop is closed. There is nowhere else you have to be, no call you have to return. Just once in the year, you can truly switch off because you are not doing it alone. It is a kind of collective sabbath. And you don’t have to be a Christian to believe in that.

Twitter: @Freedland

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