Last weekend, hoping to catch the Christmas spirit, I went on a tour of Bethlehem (which is just a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, a fact I was totally oblivious to until arriving here two months ago). While my new city is the place where Jesus is believed to have died and been resurrected, Jerusalem is not very Christmasy.
Bethlehem, however, has a much more Christmastime feel. There is a giant Christmas tree and manger in the town square. While standing in a grotto where Mary is said to have breastfed Jesus, a Franciscan priest wished our group a Merry Christmas. He invited us up to his office to see thousands of photos of babies born to mothers who couldn’t conceive, but then visited that very church, took home scrapings from the stone where a drop of Mary’s milk is said to have fallen, and then had a baby. “Miracles do happen all the time. But if you don’t believe, nothing will happen,” he said.
“I think he’s right” I told Mr. Jerusal-Em. “If you don’t believe, miracles won’t happen.”
“What happens if you do believe?”
I sighed. “Still nothing.”
I know that’s not a very Christmasy message, but the truth is I am an atheist, a total non-believer, and I’m living in the land that is considered the holiest to Christians (and Jews, and third-holiest to Muslims). And I’m trying to celebrate Christmas, like I do every year, because I really love Christmas.
The next stop on our Christmastime tour of the Little Town of Bethlehem was the manger in the basement of The Church of the Nativity. Not just any old manger, but the manger where, according to the Bible, Jesus was born. It’s a humble space, not what you’d expect of a famous religious pilgrimage site. I stood in the small basement with Christians from all over the world, Muslim women, a few women in bright saffron and pink saris, and at least two American Jews. Many waited their turn to kneel on the cold marble under the hearth and touch the spot where Jesus was born.
On our way out, a journalist approached me with a microphone and recorder and asked if he could interview me for CBS radio. I figured he was doing a story on Christians who come to Bethlehem for Christmas, so I suggested maybe I wasn’t the right person. “Perhaps you want to find someone religious to interview?” (Leave it to a former journalist to tell this guy how to do his job.)
“Well, let’s just see,” he said. He turned on his mic and asked me what I felt being inside the Church of Nativity. I was honest. I told him I didn’t feel any sort of spiritual or Biblical awe. But I was moved to watch so many different types of people – people who clearly were moved spiritually – come to this one unassuming spot, all for the same purpose.
After lunch, I went into a shop that sold a life-size nativity scene that cost $17,000. I bought the least religious things I could find: A camel ornament that says “Bethlehem” and an spoon rest made of olive wood. The man who rang me up wore a cross around his neck and Mr. Jerusal-Em spoke Arabic with him. When he told the man he’d learned Arabic in Yemen, the man said “Dangerous place, Yemen. Especially for Christians.” He looked at us, me with my agnostic spoon rest and Mr. Jerusal-Em, a Jewish-looking guy holding two Santa Hats we’d bought for a Christmas party we’d go to later. “You are Christians, right?”
In college, my roommate said she found it confusing that I celebrated Christmas if I didn’t believe Jesus was the son of God. She had a point, of course, but I just love the cozy traditions, the sense of family and community, the message of peace and goodwill, our big family Christmas Eve party, Christmas carols, mulled wine, wrapped presents, sparkling Christmas lights, the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS, my mom’s Scotch eggs and pigs in a blanket on Christmas morning. Every year I get teary when I rewatch Little Women and the March girls decide to give their Christmas breakfast of bread and butter, a few sausages, and a single orange to the poor German immigrant family with a million kids. (How did they split up that single orange?!)
I love these traditions and want to continue them, but it’s been a little difficult since getting married. My first wedded Christmas was spent in Yemen and I sulked all of December 25, 2012 over that fact that my Jewish husband didn’t grasp how important celebrating Christmas was to his atheist wife while living in a Muslim country. Mr. Jerusal-Em has since celebrated a snowy Christmas in Michigan and this year he’s totally stoked about our Christmas tree in the living room, and he has even learned Jingle Bells on the flute. He still refuses to watch any holiday movies with me.
While I love Christmas, I can understand why Christians who celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas day might be confused at non-believers like myself celebrating. But to me, it’s not so different than non-Catholics drinking green beer at a parade on St. Patrick’s day, non-Jews reading from the haggadah at Passover, or non-Muslims eating dates at an iftar during Ramadan.
After our tour of Bethlehem, we spent the night tending bar at a U.S. consulate holiday party where there were surprisingly very few Americans, but lots of local staff and a DJ who later apologized to me for not playing any American Christmas songs.
As I joined hands with strangers on the dance floor, an Eastern beat thumping over the speakers, and tried my best to figure out the strange rhythm of the steps – me in a glittery top and too-small Santa hat – it occurred to me that I’d found the holiday spirit I had been searching for.
Em in Jerusalem