Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and the streets are choked with boy scout and girl guide processions in the afternoon. Pretty girls where traditional costumes and it is a carnival. The Church of the Nativity is unreachable through the crowds I decided. Later the church is closed and Manger Square at 6 p.m. has an electric buzz. I feel ashamed that I do not make it to stand at midnight in the Square and watch the Mass on television screens. I do not make it to the church at all which is the reason I am here.
Once, recently, Bethlehem had a Christian majority Now I am told Christians make up only 27% of the town's population. There are many reasons why Christians leave, including the political situation, the security wall which prevents Bethlehemites going to Jerusalem without permission reduces trade. There are also problems with Muslims, including, I was told, some cases of Muslim men harassing and raping Christian girls. Every Christian and Muslim I speak to bewails the economic problems and the wall but nevertheless I see signs of prosperity and plenty of new buildings, including the new four star hotel, The Shepherd Plaza, in which I am staying. A very hospitable and pleasant hotel that I enjoy and recommend. Palestinian Arabs are the most hospitable people in the world.
I came from Bethlehem to Jerusalem early on Christmas morning. I suddenly decided to escape from the somewhat yeastless people I was with and my intuition was right. Intuition always is. I was shriven in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre close to Golgotha by a Polish Franciscan priest-friar. A half remembered line from Ronald Firbank novel swims into my mind:
'I know of no joy,' she airily began, 'greater than a cool white dress after the sweetness of confession.'
An Armenian Christian lady gave me coffee and told me about life for Arabs in Jerusalem.
The internet let me down by promising me a Latin Mass at the Franciscan church. Experience has taught me that when Mass in Latin is advertised it always turns out not to be in Latin but this was in Italian and in Latin and was exceptionally lovely. We sang:
Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Lunch involved turkey but not Christmas trimmings or pudding at the American Colony Hotel. The American Colony predates the coming of the Jews to Jerusalem and has a relaxed, aristocratic air: a mixture of the London Ritz and the Levant. The food is good but not exceptional and not as good as the ambiance. There a Jewess, originally from Ilford, felt drawn to start a conversation with me and we had a wonderful conversation. She is a so-called Messianic Jew, who accepts Jesus as the Messiah and God. I ended up sitting with her women friends.
My Christmas dinner was in a kosher Mexican restaurant with a clever Jewish journalist friend with whom I was at college. We discussed Middle Eastern politics and college and pretty girls we knew in common like the very gorgeous Vanessa Feltz. He mentioned that Stephen Fry was "so funny at Cambridge, never funny afterwards". Glad I am not the only one who thinks this. We agreed Hugh Laurie is better, though not in the dire Jeeves and Wooster.
I think this has been the best Christmas of my life though not a carouse though fairly gluttonous. I chastely drank two glasses of wine with lunch and two with my dinner and went to be stone cold sober.