Aside from the North Pole, the “little town of Bethlehem” is probably the most Christmasy place on earth. The birthplace of Jesus Christ is only a bus or taxi ride away from the Old City of Jerusalem within the West Bank. But before making the journey, there are some essential things to know:
Lots of tourists walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but these days you have to walk on a big road. You cannot just walk across the fields because you have to pass through a military checkpoint. It takes about four hours, and you need to be pretty fit (note: if you’re hung over, take a taxi).
There are “loosely organized” walking groups, which are often led by a priest or a monk. These groups are usually not publicly advertised, but you can probably ask at one of the churches in Jerusalem (careful! Make sure you go to a church that actually celebrates Christmas on 24 & 25 December).
Despite being the Middle East, it’s not actually hot in the winter. Listen to your mom and bring a sweater.
Bring your passport. A lot of travellers are surprised to learn there’s a wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Since Bethlehem is part of Palestine, an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations.
Any time of the year is busy in Bethlehem. So what do you think Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be like? It’s worse than St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. If you want a peaceful or uplifting experience, choose a non-holy month to visit.
Bethlehem has a large Christian community and Christmas is celebrated like a city festival. There are lights and decorations every where, lots of Christmas songs are played out in the street. During the holidays, a huge-ass Christmas tree is erected in the Manger’s Square. It will also be swarming with singing tourists, some of whom have opted to celebrate the Lord’s birth by getting wasted.
The main action happens in the Church of Nativity, but lots of people want to go to mass there and usually VIPs, such as the Palestinian leadership. Security measures around the church are very high and you usually can only enter the church if you have one of the scarce pre-booked entrance tickets.
The site of Jesus’ birth is located in the basement of the Church of the Nativity, known as the Grotto of the Nativity. Again, don’t expect peace or order. Pilgrims sing, clap, and wail at the top of their lungs, while waiting in line to enter the Grotto.
To get into the church, you need to dress conservatively. This means no shorts, skirts, tanks, or exposing any body parts that might make the Baby Jesus cry.
An Orthodox priest guards the Grotto’s entrance, and occasionally yells at people to quit shoving. He’s basically an ordained bouncer. The wait to get into the Grotto can be an hour or more in the high season. Our tour guide bribed the priest so we could skip the queue. You can try this, but no guarantees.
Two steps of steep stairs lead down into the cave, where the manger was located. This is when shit gets real: as the line bottlenecks, pilgrims get pushy and try to ram their way through the tiny entrance. I had to resist the urge to scream, Jesus H. Christ! It’s not Noah’s Arc! If you’re claustrophobic, you may want to get the hell out of the crowded cave as quickly as possible.
Another option is to go to the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour (just east of Bethlehem). You can see lots of small international groups celebrating mass outside in the fields. Plus, it’s fun to just walk around and listen to all the talking and singing in different languages.
Next to the Shepherds’ Fields is a restaurant called “The Tent.” On Christmas Eve, it’s full of locals who celebrate Christmas with their friends and family. You can eat great Palestinian food, smoke a shisha, and sing and dance with the locals (or just watch).
Insider’s tip: When you fly out of Tel Aviv airport, don’t reminisce aloud about your visit to Bethlehem. Since it’s located in Palestine, security will not respond favourably. Upload your photographs to Google Drive and erase your camera’s memory card, as well as any emails about your trip. There’s a chance that airport security will search your electronics. This may seem extreme, but take it from someone who has been searched and detained.