In the airport on my way to Bethlehem, I met a soldier from Afghanistan on leave for R&R in Australia. He grew up in Alexandria, not ten minutes from where I’ve lived the past two years. We didn’t even exchange names, we just bonded over Middle Eastern driving, prolific stray cats, a mutual terror of potential camel spiders, and a desperate need for a beer. At the same time he said Happy Holidays, I said Merry Christmas and we smiled over a difference that would peeve so many people back home, but here is a bond, a common knowledge, almost a private joke. That’s the first time it felt like Christmas.
Bethlehem was a marvel. Even though the entire town is geared towards making money off Christmas tourists, flooded with men selling you coffee and corn and scarves and nativity sets, somehow it maintains a feeling of non-commercialized Christmas.
In keeping with ancient tradition, the inns were full on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, so I wandered around with a bottle of Bailey’s, saw the Church of the Nativity, and listened to Jingle Bells in Arabic repeated several times. It was cold and felt a bit aimless for a while, but midnight Mass was worth frittering away a day.
To get into Mass, I met Darius from Poland and we pretended to be brother and sister to sneak in on his one ticket. I knew my impecable Polish accent would be suspicious, so I just smiled and nodded and said, “ja” once or twice to the guard. I don’t even know if they say “ja” in Poland. And no, I see no irony in lying to get into Christmas Mass.
Inside, we sat knee to knee with some of the most joyful little old nuns I’ve ever seen. One of them must have been at least seventy-five, but she was impish and alternated between poking the nun that sat next to her and falling asleep. They were all darling. I was blissfully happy singing Adeste Fideles, sitting among people who didn’t share a single thing with me other than this. It was freaking cold and a struggle to keep my eyes open during the Arabic homily, but one of the nuns said to me, “It great grace to be here.” and it truly was.
I spent Christmas day on a hostel rooftop with a bottle of wine, reading a Graham Green book about death and looking out over Palestine. I was a good way to spend Christmas.
When I was getting to know Darius from Poland he asked me if I was happy. I am. It settled in my bones on Christmas, and it’s stuck.