It sounds like a simple question, but it isn't.
So journalists: When is Christmas in the ancient city of Bethlehem?
Obviously, for many people, Christmas is on Dec. 25th. That's when you'll see television coverage of people singing carols, in English for the most part, in Bethlehem Square. Often, reports will include a glimpse of the Midnight Mass in the modern Franciscan sanctuary known as the Church of St. Catherine.
Next door to this Catholic church is the ancient Church of the Nativity, an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary built with its altar directly above the grotto in which church traditions says Jesus of Nazareth was born.
So, journalists: When is Christmas celebrated at this very symbolic altar?
The answer, of course, is that Christmas is on Jan. 7, for most (but not all) Eastern Orthodox Christians -- those who follow the older Julian calendar. This includes millions of believers in places like Russia, Egypt, Eastern Europe and, yes, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. For more information on this, see my 2015 post: "Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations."
Year after year, journalists cover the events of Dec. 24-25, while ignoring those on Jan. 6-7. This is most strange if the goal is to (a) cover the current state of Christianity in Bethlehem and the surrounding region and (b) to use Bethlehem tourism as a way to gauge the impact of economic trends and violence in the Holy Land. Like it or not, Russia (and Eastern Europeans) have strong ties to the ancient churches of the Middle East and many believers in the East like to make pilgrimages to these holy sites, while following the Julian liturgical calendar.
The Los Angeles Times recently published a Christmas in Bethlehem story that was, in many ways, business as usual. The good news: This feature showed evidence that Orthodox churches exist. The bad news: The editors of this story still seem to be in the dark when it comes to knowing the details of Bethlehem's two Christmas celebrations (including which church is which and the precise location of the grotto).
The story focuses on Father Hanna Mass’ad, a Catholic priest, and his short Mass in the grotto. Why is the Mass so short? Why the rush? Read this carefully:
Mass’ad, the Catholic parish priest of Beit Jala, a village that lies between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, is a vigorous, sturdy man with twinkling eyes. His given name, Hanna, is Arabic for John. He attacked the task before him solemnly, seriously and purposefully. He does it every year.
The 25-minute limit is among many strictures, known as the status quo, that have reigned in this church for more than 150 years.
The rules are intended to govern the peace in a maze-like temple of prayer that is holy to Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox churches. The status quo, overseen by a strict Franciscan brother from Poland, determines even upon which tile of ancient marble flooring a priest may tread.
Mass’ad’s service started a few minutes late, at 5:08 a.m., and the Orthodox sacrament was scheduled to start at 5:30.
Now, most readers would conclude that a Franciscan brother is in charge of liturgical activities in a holy space that is under an Orthodox altar. It that was the case, that would really be big news. In reality, this particular brother is probably part of the ecumenical team -- from East and West -- that negotiates access to the grotto located under an Orthodox sanctuary.
This paragraph also suggests that the Orthodox will be celebrating a Divine Liturgy to mark Christmas at this grotto location a few minutes after the Catholics. That would be bizarre.
A few lines later, the editorial team behind this piece gets confused about precise locations in this complex set of buildings -- again.
Above the grotto, in the main basilica, a Christmas Mass in Urdu was attended mostly by Indian foreign workers employed in Israel, across the security barrier from Bethlehem, and by people who appeared to be European and African pilgrims unperturbed by the foreign language.
Wait a minute. So there was a Catholic Christmas Mass at the altar of the ancient Eastern Orthodox Christian basilica?
Really now? Surely that Urdu rite took place next door in the Catholic sanctuary, in the Church of St. Catherine? Perhaps it would help to take a look at this graphic featured on a tourism website about the Bethlehem churches.
So is it too late to get this story straightened out?
That depends on whether the editors at The Los Angeles Times and other major news operations are interested in covering BOTH Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Now, we should take into consideration the fact that the official 2017 story line for pack journalists is that tourism is down in Jerusalem and Bethlehem because of tensions caused by -- you knew this was coming -- President Donald Trump. Here is the top of a typical Associated Press report:
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- It was a subdued Christmas Eve in the historic birthplace of Jesus, with spirits dampened by recent violence sparked by President Donald Trump’s recognition of nearby Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Crowds on Sunday (Dec. 24) were thinner than previous years, with visitors deterred by clashes that have broken out in recent weeks between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces. Although there was no violence, Palestinian officials scaled back the celebrations in protest. ...
Claire Degout, a tourist from France, said she would not allow Trump’s pronouncement, which has infuriated the Palestinians and drawn widespread international opposition, affect her decision to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
There may be other reasons, right now, for many tourists to ask safety and security questions about travel to the Middle East. But let's set that issue aside for a moment.
Here is my question: Do Orthodox believers in Russia, Egypt and elsewhere feel the same way? Will the Christmas crowds be smaller this year on the evening of Jan. 6th? Will there be a significant difference in the sizes of the Orthodox crowds, compared to previous years?
Once you know the answer to that, you can contrast the attendance patterns among Western tourists -- especially those from Europe and America -- and those from Russia and lands in the East. There may be interesting differences.
Of course, this raises a rather basic question: Will journalists deign to cover the Jan. 6-7 Christmas rites in the main basilica? Do their editors even know what these events exist?
Here's another journalism question: Does it matter that journalists make these basic errors over and over again, such as confusing the Church of St. Catherine with the Church of the Nativity? Does it matter that they don't grasp basic ecumenical facts about life in the Middle East?
Just asking. Again.