Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say everyone knows Jesus was born in Bethlehem on (about) December 25th. Regardless of your beliefs, religion, and culture, Bethlehem is a sacred place and is the essence of Christmas. It truly is the Holy Land you’ve heard about it, but you have to be there to really understand.

Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world gather in and around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve each year.

Since we’d be in Israel in December, we knew we had to experience this ‘bucket-list’ moment. We headed to Manger Square for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, to attend midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity.

Rental cars from Israel are not allowed into Palestinian Territory, and there are only two ways to enter:

  1. Independently navigating Jerusalem and arriving via bus to the Rachel border crossing, crossing by foot, then taking a short 5-10 minutes taxi to the church, OR
  2. Entering Bethlehem with an organized tour.

Christmas eve in jerusalem and bethlehem

After much research, we decided to take a tour, and found this experience to be both humbling and awe-inspiring…

Where is Bethlehem?

The Old City, Jerusalem
Approaching the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem

Bethlehem is about five miles south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, and is controlled by Palestine Authority. We carried our passports since we’d be crossing the border into the Palestine Territories. I prefer to lock my passport in a safe when we travel, but we really didn’t have a choice.

We Stopped in Jerusalem En Route to Bethlehem

After leaving Tel Aviv, we drove to Jerusalem. We were able to stand on the Mount of Olives and take in the beautiful Jerusalem skyline.

We drove past the Garden of Gethsemane, which is where Jesus often met with his disciples. This is also where Jesus said his final prayers before his arrest. As we entered the Old City, we slowly walked the narrow streets that Jesus walked, passing many Stations of the Cross, arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Stations of the cross in jerusalem Where Jesus put his hand - the stations of the cross jerusalem

According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified on the cross and placed in a tomb, and this church was built over those places.

It’s easy to forget the reasons we celebrate Easter. I can hardly find the words to express how incredibly powerful it was to walk where Jesus walked and to stand where he was crucified on the cross.

Church of the holy sepulchre jerusalem - visiting on christmas eve
This cross symbolises the very spot where Jesus was crucified on the cross

 

Church of the holy Sepulchre jerusalem
This is the upper part of the spot where Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid to be cleaned and prepared for his tomb. It was far too private and intimate to take pictures of the actual stone where he was laid.

It was incredibly spiritual. But what struck us the most was the sight of people from all over the world praying over the stone where he was laid to be cleaned for his grave.

The hysterical sobbing, gentle cleaning of the stone with cloths, and loud praying in every language imaginable was overwhelming. It was far too private to take photos or video, but is still sitting in our hearts.

Approaching Bethlehem

Midnight mass in Bethlehem
Manger Square on Christmas Eve

As we approached Bethlehem, we stopped at ‘The Shepherd’s fFeld’. According to the Bible, it was here where shepherds were ‘watching their sheep by night’ on the eve of Jesus’ birth and saw the bright star in the sky indicating His birth.

We left Shepherd’s Field and drove towards Bethlehem. The roads were windy, it was dark, and we approached the steepest road I have ever seen. Literally, the bus had the hardest time on this hill, and at one point we skidded backwards. It was a little hairy, but we arrived safely.

Entering Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

We crossed the border checkpoint (surprisingly) without any hassles or delays and entered Bethlehem. We immediately felt the excitement and Christmas spirit.

Manger square in bethlehem on christmas eve

The whole city was decorated with twinkling lights. We were struck by people who had traveled from all corners of the globe to be here. We saw the beautiful Christmas tree and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant in Manager Square, while waiting for Midnight Mass.

Although it was a clear night, the temperature dropped to around 8°C (about 40 degrees).

It’s important to note all of us felt extremely safe and secure in this conflicted place. We were traveling with our two kids, and were initially concerned it might be a bit sketchy. It was safe, it was fun, and we met people who seemed like old friends after an hour.

However you do need to be VERY comfortable in Bethlehem, and in fact the whole of the Middle East, with the presence of soldiers who are really smooth-faced teenagers carrying semi-automatic weapons.

Security forces in Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity: Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity is one of the most sacred Christian sites in the world since it’s built on top of the land where Jesus was born. There’s a dispute over who actually owns this sacred site, so the church itself is split into 3 sections: Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic.

The exterior is a little underwhelming, but once inside, the church is breathtaking and we saw a long line of people waiting to enter the holy cave, and witness the birthplace of Jesus.

We descended the stairs in anticipation of this special place. The room was crowded, hot, and filled with devout believers from every religion waiting to kiss the sacred site. A fourteen-point silver star beneath the main altar marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. I have to be honest, my germophobia does not allow me to kiss these sorts of places (it was the same at the Blarney Stone in Ireland), but I could feel the spirituality in the room.

Inside the Church of the Nativity

You can feel the magic in the air, and I became overwhelmed and teary in this special place. In the spirit of honesty, I have to confess I was a little distracted by the overpowering smell of body odor in this stuffy jam-packed cave (please don’t send me hate email!)

 

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

As we prepared for Christmas mass, we were surprised to see a motorcade arrive. We could hardly believe that Mahmood Abbas, the Palestinian President, arrived for Midnight Mass.  This was an experience of a lifetime… so spiritually enriching and overwhelming. To experience this sacred place with pilgrims who had traveled from all over the world is beyond words.

Midnight mass in bethlehem

Tips for Spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

  • You must be completely prepared to politely answer questions from armed guards at any moment.
  • You should be comfortable brushing shoulders with soldiers (teenagers) toting semi-automatic weapons.
  • You should use your travel common sense like in any other city, but we felt very safe at all times during this visit.
  • The currency most commonly used in Bethlehem is New Israeli Shekels (NIS), the same as Israel.  You can use US dollars and Jordanian Dinars, but you’re not likely to get a good exchange rate.
  • Almost everyone speaks English, so communicating was never a problem for us.
  • Bethlehem is significantly less expensive than Israel since businesses in the West Bank pay much lower taxes.
  • Bring small denominations of shekels for tips.
  • If you’re visiting sacred sites, wear modest clothing (cover shoulders, knees and chest), and ladies bring a scarf to cover your head, so you don’t have to borrow from the sacred sites (just thinking of this makes my head itch!)

This experience is still sitting with us, and these are my thoughts at this moment.

christmas eve bethlehem with family

Bethlehem with Kids: Insider Secrets

When we planned our trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we were buzzing with excitement and, of course, loads of questions. We knew timing would be a big factor, and we wanted to be well-prepared. Here’s what we found out along the way.

Do you need a passport to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem?

Yes, you need to bring your passports. Although Bethlehem is only about 6 miles from Jerusalem, it’s in the West Bank, which requires passing through a checkpoint. It felt a bit like going into another country, even though it’s quite close.

Is it safe to travel to Bethlehem?

We found that Bethlehem is very safe for tourists. The locals are really welcoming to visitors. There are security guards standing watch everywhere, but people are there for the same reason – to experience the Holy Land. It’s always smart to stay updated on travel advisories and be mindful of the political climate.

What’s the political climate like?

Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territories, and while we didn’t encounter any issues during our visit, there are tensions in the region. We made sure to respect local feelings and not discuss politics openly.

What cultural norms should we be aware of?

Dressing modestly is appreciated, especially when visiting religious sites. We also learned to greet people in Arabic with “Marhaba” for hello and “Shukran” for thank you, which always brought a smile to locals’ faces.

What are the must-visit places in Bethlehem?

The Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born, was top of our list. We also visited the Shepherd’s Fields and the Milk Grotto. Each place had its own story that was fascinating to hear about.

Can we take photos everywhere in Bethlehem?

We could take photos in most places, but always asked for permission when photographing people or inside religious sites. Some places had specific rules about photography, so we looked out for signs or asked when unsure.

What kind of food should we try in Bethlehem?

The local cuisine is delicious! We tried falafel, hummus, and kunafa, a sweet cheese pastry. Eating at a local family-run restaurant gave us a taste of authentic Palestinian hospitality.

What should we buy as souvenirs?

Bethlehem is known for its beautiful olive wood carvings. We saw a lot of  nativity scenes and figurines and we bought some Christmas tree ornament crosses to take home. Handmade jewelry and embroidered textiles are also in shops all over.

How can we learn more about the history and culture during our visit?

We found that being on a tour with a tour guide was incredibly helpful to point us in the right direction, and for the easy border crossing. You can also hire a local guide when you get there to add a historical narrative. There’s so much to Bethlehem’s history, culture, and the significance of the sites we visited, it would be tough to memorize before you left.

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Our trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem was an eye-opening experience. We immersed ourselves in the rich history, savored the local cuisine, and met some incredibly warm and welcoming people. Remembering to be respectful and open-minded made our visit not just a trip, but a journey we’d never forget.

Have you celebrated Christmas Eve in Bethlehem?

Did you have these same feelings?

Let me know in the comments below and join me on Instagram and Twitter!

**This post is sponsored but all opinions are my own**

About The Author

Samantha

I’m a travel and health writer, digital brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising an active family, life after a cancer diagnosis, and family travels around the world! Each story is shared with my dry, and sometimes naughty sense of humor.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Jennifer Mackintosh | 5th Jan 19

    Absolutely beautiful!!! I loved seeing the Holy Land through your eyes! It makes sense that in the cave there would be a lack of air circulation…but yeah…that would be hard! I just cannot imagine how amazing it would be to be right there, where He was, on that night! I have chills just thinking about it, and I am so overjoyed that y’all were there!! What an amazing and treasured memory!

    • Samantha | 7th Jan 19

      It was absolutely incredible. SO moving and humbling and we are all forever changed for being there together. XX

  2. | 5th Jan 19

    That was beautiful. A very spiritual place. Again, thanks for sharing.

    • Samantha | 7th Jan 19

      Thank you… we are all forever changed for being there.

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