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‘Tis the season of lights, Santa Claus and gift wrap. It's that time of year when Bethlehem once again becomes a hot news story around the globe. The real town of Bethlehem, that traditional site of Jesus' birth, still stands only a few miles from Jerusalem, but these days it's mostly Arabs who live there, not Jews.
Every Christmas eve faithful Christians gather at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity to worship. For many it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commemorate Jesus' birth in the city where he was born. Maybe it's on your bucket list as well. If so, to ensure you get the most out of your visit, here are a few things about Bethlehem that you should know before you go, from entry, to culture, to sites and souvenirs.
1. Carry your passport.
This is an official border. Most tourists fly to Israel and visit Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem (8 km away) or Tel-Aviv. Regardless of entry point, everyone has to pass through a guarded checkpoint with passport in hand.
Another thing: Don't take photos of the checkpoint, or aim your camera in the direction of the checkpoint. It's a standard security procedure. (You can take all the pictures you want after you enter the territory.)
2. Bethlehem is actually called Beit Lechem.
Translated, its name means “House of Bread” (Hebrew) or “House of Meat/Flesh” (Arabic). Enjoy the delicious food, and be prepared to spend your entire time in Bethlehem completely stuffed. This is a culture that knows how to feed its guests.
3. The most visited site is the Church of the Nativity.
The church has seen its share of renovations and additions but all the improvements were built around the original structure. It is the oldest Church in the Holy Land still in use and one of the oldest churches in the world.
4. The Grotto of the Nativity, traditional site of Jesus' birth, is beneath the church.
A 14-point silver star embedded in white marble marks the exact spot where Jesus was actually born. At least, that's what they say. There are always really long lines to see the star, so if you don’t care that much about seeing the actual star, you can opt to visit a different part of the grotto via an alternate route.
5. The Grotto of the Nativity was originally a cave.
Some scholars believe that this cave was originally a cultic shrine to the pagan god Adonis-Tammuz (lord Tammuz), stating that the word Bethlehem could also mean “House of Lahmu.” (Lahmu was the serpentine gatekeeper in pagan lore.)
On the other hand, Jerome claimed that it began as a shrine to Jesus and was later rededicated to Tammuz. Read this article for more about that.
6. The church is jointly controlled by three Christian denominations.
Each of them — Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic — controls a different part of the basilica, but nobody gets special treatment. All have equal access to the Grotto.
7. Bethlehem is also the traditional burial site of Rachel.
Bethlehem is also a pilgrimmage site due to Rachel's tomb. Rachel was the favorite wife of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. According to the Bible, he was renamed Israel and his 12 sons became the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel.
8. Bethlehem is famous for its olive wood carvings,
and plenty are available all over town, at prices far better than you can get anywhere else. (Be sure to haggle!)
Even better deals can be found on the street, where people hawk huge bottles of water for $1.
9. Muslims rarely patronize non-Muslim businesses
To do so would result in being ostracized socially. Both family and community are extremely central to Arab culture. Because of this, many Christians and other non-Muslims rely on income from tourists and others in a similar situation.
10. Merchants are willing to take U.S. dollars
as well as Israeli shekels. This means you can buy souvenirs without worrying about exchange rates. Have fun shopping!
Tip: Bethlehem is a short trip from anywhere in Israel. Click here to read about our day trip Bethlehem.