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: