Let's settle one issue first. I am well aware that for most of the world's Christians, Christmas is celebrated on the 25th day of December. The season then continues for the next 12 days, but that's another story (as the one and only M.Z. Hemingway reminds us).
However, there are millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians located in strategic places -- think Egypt, Russia, the Slavic countries -- who celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. Click here to see a helpful map at The Telegraph offering the details. (Clarification from a reader: Most parishes in Greece now use the 25th of December, but there are old-calendar parishes there, too. The map is inaccurate on that point.)
Why is this? Well churches in the West use the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582. Most of the world's Orthodox churches remain on the Julian calendar, which dates back to 45 B.C. (It does confuse things a bit that, in the United States, most Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 -- but stay on the old calendar for Pascha, which is the Orthodox name for Easter).
I needed to remind readers about these basic facts -- which are known to all experienced religion-beat writers -- because this is the time when news organizations start covering one of the season's basic stories, which is the sad state of Christmas in the city of Bethlehem itself, located on the tense West Bank.
The headline on the Washington Post piece is typical: "Violence makes for a somber Christmas in Bethlehem this year." Tragically, you could use that headline almost every year and it would be accurate.
The story gets the politics of this story right, of course. The problem -- surprise -- is that key religious facts are missing or are messed up. Here is how the story starts out:
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus is usually filled with parades and parties this time of year. There are fireworks, carolers, feasts. Revelers drink a little wine. They dance.
This year? It’s not exactly like Christmas was canceled, but it is a somber, dutiful affair.
“It’s a sad Christmas to be honest,” said Nabil Giacaman, a Palestinian Christian and owner of a souvenir shop, who a few days before the holiday hadn’t bothered to decorate his store. “I’m just not in the mood,” he said.
The Palestinian leadership decided to tone down the celebrations this year out of respect for the dead.
Other than coverage of recent violence, the other main thrust of the piece is that tourism is way down, both in terms of visitors from the West and Eastern Christians on pilgrimages. The violence on the Western Bank is crucial, of course, but can you think of any other reasons that fewer Christians might be coming from places like Syria, Iraq and Egypt?
The story sums some of this up, quoting Johnny Kattan, a manager at the Jacir Palace Hotel:
The number of tourists to Bethlehem in October and November were half the number of previous years.
It’s not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that’s keeping visitors away, Kattan said. “It’s the Paris attacks, it’s the tensions between Russia and Turkey, it’s the crash of the Russian plane,” the Metrojet flight that crashed in the Sinai Peninsula in late October after a bomb went off, killing all 224 passengers and crew.
“We’ve lost the Russians,” Kattan said, who were known in Bethlehem to be big spenders.
Although the parties were canceled, the religious events will go on. They lit the Christmas tree in Manger Square last week, but instead of the usual fireworks, the churches rang their bells. The annual procession from Jerusalem’s Old City to Bethlehem will proceed.
The problem? Well, when would many of the Russians and Palestinian Christians be coming to Bethlehem for Christmas? Hint: For them, Christmas is not on December 25th.
To be blunt, the Post team doesn't seem to know that Orthodox Christianity exists and that many -- but not all -- of the Christians in Israel and lands nearby celebrate Christmas on the older, Julian calendar. That should have at least been mentioned, especially if you are going to bring up the Russians.
The same issue comes up in this piece of the story:
“Pilgrims should not be afraid to come,” Fuad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said in his Christmas message. “Despite the tense situation in this land, the pilgrim route is safe and they are respected and appreciated by all sectors in the Holy Land.”
There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.
Yes, the LATIN -- that would be Roman Catholic -- patriarch will probably be involved in that Christmas Eve Mass.
However, it's crucial to know that there are two sanctuaries on this site in Bethlehem. There is the Western, Franciscan sanctuary, and the ancient Orthodox sanctuary that is build over the cave that is recognized as the birthplace of Jesus.
Thus, the Mass on December 25th will be in the newer church, in the Catholic sanctuary that is located next to the ancient church.
The Orthodox Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be held in the ancient sanctuary in the first hours of January 7th. You can see a fragment of that in the video at the top of this post.
The bottom line: There are two Christmases in Bethlehem.
In other words, the Post needs to get the facts straight on these two churches and the two celebrations of Christmas in Bethlehem.