Understanding the Connection Between Palestine and Christmas | SoundVision.com

Understanding the Connection Between Palestine and Christmas

We are currently in the month of December 2023, amid the holiday season, but this Christmas looks very different for its observers. Multiple news agencies, including CNN, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera have confirmed the unthinkable for practicing Christians around the world: Christmas is canceled in the city of Bethlehem, likely the very birthplace of Jesus, peace be upon him, referenced not only in the Bible, but also in classical Islamic texts. Since Israel declared war against Hamas in October of this year, a siege and military offensive in the Gaza Strip has left tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians dead – Muslims and Christians alike. In solidarity with their brethren in Gaza, Palestinian Christian clergy from every denomination in the region have canceled all holiday festivities.1 Until the current campaign of bloody revenge after an alleged attack by Hamas on October 7 ends, there will be no such celebrations in Palestine. 

The world stands still and all eyes are on Gaza as heavy bombardment claims the lives of countless women and children, and destroys most of the strip’s infrastructure, including whole neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, mosques, and churches. What many Western leaders have called a “conflict” between Israel and Hamas has been likened to the Biblical story of David and Goliath, or Dawud and Jalut in the Quran (see Surah Baqarah, 2:251). 

History of the Region 

The history of the ongoing conflict in the region dates back to 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel in the Palestinian territory but goes back even further to the birth of Zionism in the late 19th century, World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent reassignment of former Ottoman-controlled lands. These places fell to Western powers, who then proceeded to map, rename, and redistribute them amongst themselves and their allies. According to historical records, the name of the area known as “Palestine” has existed for centuries, and has been considered a blessed place by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The name emerged in the 5th century BCE, as documented by Herodotus, superseding the earlier term "Canaan" used in Mesopotamian texts.2

The carnage of Gaza’s civilians has raised red flags amongst even the most conservative audiences, with massive protests demanding a ceasefire erupting worldwide. Although most of the violence is taking place in Gaza, there are continuous hostilities in the Israeli-Occupied West Bank, which houses some of Christendom’s holiest sites. There are increasing concerns about the safety of Muslims and Christian Palestinians, making it nearly impossible to reconcile the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, considered the most prominent historical figure in Palestine, with the devastating loss of so many Palestinian lives. 

It is important to understand the current events and this history. We must also educate our children about the variations in the account of the birth of Jesus. And there are many parts to this story.

Mary and the Birth of Jesus

In both Islam and Christianity, the figure of Jesus or Isa, peace be upon him, represents blessings and peace. In the Quran, a newborn Jesus, defends his virgin mother, Mary, with the following words: 

 "Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I remain alive and [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive."

(Surah Maryam, 19:30-33)

The so-called “Christmas spirit” often mentioned during the holiday season echoes this message of hope. Indeed we hear the calls to peace and merriment even in the melodies that play throughout the month of December. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is an English Christmas carol that first appeared in 1739 in the English collection of Christmas songs called Hymns and Sacred Poems.3 The verses of this hymn refer to the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, peace be upon him, in the Heavens and expressing their joy and gratitude.

“Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn king!

Peace on earth, and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim:

‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’”

The carol mentions the city of Bethlehem in Palestine as the location where the Messenger and Messiah, Jesus was born. The announcement and birth of Jesus hold great significance in both the Christian and Islamic traditions, however, the stories slightly differ. The site that many Christians believe houses the place where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus can be found within the walls of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Quran does not specify the exact location of the birth but provides other details about this miraculous event. 

The Birthplace

The Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus, peace be upon him, unveils the sacred journey of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the Holy Land deeply embedded in religious history and spirituality. Beyond the glittering lights and festive celebrations, the essence of Christmas lies in the sacred sites that hold the stories of Mary and Jesus, peace be upon them, starting with the city of Jerusalem. According to Christian tradition, the life of Jesus Christ is told in detail in the first four books of the New Testament, or the four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. These books mention the places in Palestine where Christians believe Jesus was born, lived, and taught. 

  • The initial mention of Jesus' residence can be found in the oldest Gospel, Mark, where it is stated: "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan" (Mark 1:9). Although Nazareth, a relatively unknown northern town, is identified as Jesus' dwelling place, Mark does not explicitly confirm it as his birthplace but rather as the location where he lived. It is important to note that some Christian historians believe Jesus was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. 
  • In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' birthplace is explicitly revealed as Bethlehem, a town approximately 80 miles south of Nazareth in Galilee. Bethlehem holds particular significance due to an Old Testament prophecy, which Matthew references: "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least . . . for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel'" (Matthew 2:6). 
  • Luke's Gospel also attributes Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace and provides a detailed account of Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.4

Bethlehem or Bayt Al-Lahm

Bethlehem is a city a few miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Holy Grotto in the Church of the Nativity cradles the humble manger where Christians believe Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus. Many Muslim scholars agree that Jesus, peace be upon him, was indeed born in Bethlehem, but the exact location is unknown, except for that it was near a date palm and a small stream. The following is the narration of the conception and birth of Jesus or Isa in the Quran:

“And mention in the scripture, Mary, when she withdrew from her people to an eastern location. She screened herself away from them, and We sent to her Our spirit, and He appeared to her as an immaculate human. She said, “I take refuge from you in the Most Merciful, should you be righteous.” He said, “I am only the messenger of your Lord, to give you the gift of a pure son.” She said, “How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, and I was never unchaste?” He said, “Thus said your Lord, `It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign for humanity, and a mercy from Us. It is a matter already decided.’“ So she carried him, and secluded herself with him in a remote place. The labor-pains came upon her, by the trunk of a palm-tree. She said, “I wish I had died before this, and been completely forgotten.” Whereupon he called her from beneath her: “Do not worry; your Lord has placed a stream beneath you. And shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards you, and it will drop ripe dates by you.” “So eat, and drink, and be consoled. And if you see any human, say, ‘I have vowed a fast to the Most Gracious, so I will not speak to any human today.'“ 

(Surah Maryam, 19:16-26)

Ibn Kathir mentions in his Tafsir, regarding the birthplace of Jesus, peace be upon him:

“The scholars differed over its location. As-Suddi said, ‘Her place of seclusion was to the east and that was where she would pray at the Sacred House of Jerusalem.’ Wahb bin Munabbih said, ‘She ran away and when she reached an area between Ash-Sham and Egypt, she was overcome by labor pains.’ In another narration from Wahb, he said, ‘This took place eight miles from the Sacred House of Jerusalem in a village that was known as Bayt Al-Lahm (Bethlehem).’ I say, there are Hadiths about the Isra' (Night Journey of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him) that are reported by An-Nasa'i on the authority of Anas, and Al-Bayhaqi on the authority of Shadad bin Aws, that say that this took place at Bait Al-Lahm. Allah knows best. This is what is well known that the people all relate from each other. This is also the majority view of Christian scholars that the place of this occurrence was Bethlehem, and this is what all the people relate.” 

(Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

Jerusalem or al-Quds

Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the Holy Land, is of huge significance in the narrative of Mary and Jesus in both Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is the city of prophets and miracles, where, according to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, ascended to the Heavens during the Night Journey. It is in this city where Mary, peace be upon her, served in the temple under the tutelage of her uncle, the Prophet Zakariyya, peace be upon him, and where she received Divine provisions. Allah says about her story in the Quran: 

“Indeed, Allah chose Adam, Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of ’Imran (the father of Mary) above all people ˹of their time˺. They are descendants of one another. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. ˹Remember˺ when the wife of ’Imran said, “My Lord! I dedicate what is in my womb entirely to Your service, so accept it from me. You ˹alone˺ are truly the All-Hearing, All-Knowing. When she delivered, she said, “My Lord! I have given birth to a girl,”– and Allah fully knew what she had delivered – “and the male is not like the female. I have named her Mary, and I seek Your protection for her and her offspring from Satan, the accursed. So her Lord accepted her graciously and blessed her with a pleasant upbringing—entrusting her to the care of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah visited her in the sanctuary, he found her supplied with provisions. He exclaimed, ‘O Mary! Where did this come from?’ She replied, “It is from Allah. Surely Allah provides for whoever He wills without limit.” 

(Quran, Surah Ali-Imran, 3:33-38)

The city of Jerusalem, enriched with historical and religious significance, contains the three holiest sites of the three oft-called Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Masjid Al-Aqsa. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is another important site in the Biblical story of Jesus. It is believed to house two holy sites in Christianity – the site of the crucifixion and the empty tomb where Christians believe Jesus, peace be upon him, was buried and resurrected. Islam, of course, rejects the Biblical crucifixion, but nevertheless, Jerusalem is for these faiths, the backdrop of scripture and prophecy and is especially critical in the story of Jesus and his mother, Mary, peace and blessings be upon them. Unfortunately, the sacred sites in Jerusalem have also borne witness to countless conflicts and transfers of power. 

Changes in the Region after 1948

The cities Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem are all historically tied to the story of Jesus, peace be upon him, and by default, to the region known as Palestine. However, the status of these cities has evolved after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus according to the Biblical accounts, is situated in the northern part of present-day Israel. Over the years, it has become the largest Arab city in Israel and is known for its significant Christian population. Despite being within the borders of the state of Israel, Nazareth is part of a region with a diverse population that includes Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, in an area that came under Jordanian control after 1948 but has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. In the same year, Israel claimed Jerusalem as its capital although the claim was not internationally recognized.5

Before these complexities, Palestine was a refuge for generations of people from all three faiths, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They coexisted in peace as neighbors who likely lined their streets with glowing lights during the Christmas season and shared meals during the two Eids. During these celebrations, there was an exchange of gifts and traditions. Those days, however, seem far behind. Now, Palestinians of all faiths are united in grief as they witness the annihilation of their fellow countrymen in Gaza. There won’t be a Christmas in Bethlehem this year because that would mean a celebration of life, but hours away from the birthplace of Jesus, Palestinians are dying.  

End Notes

1 Why Christmas is canceled in Bethlehem

2 Palestine - World History Encyclopedia

3 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing - Wikipedia

4 Biblical stories of Jesus' birth reveal intriguing clues about his times | National Geographic

5 Who owns Jerusalem? | Al Jazeera America

Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.

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