The Secret History of Christmas in Bethlehem
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The Secret History of Christmas in Bethlehem

It isn't the jolliest of images, but come Christmastime I often think of my great-great-grandfather, Mika'il Dabdoub, docking in Victorian Manila in 1886 after arriving on a steamship from Singapore. He was 38 at the time, a year older than I am now, and had just traveled more than 5,000 miles from his hometown of Bethlehem, in the then-Ottoman Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem. To him, Manila might as well have been Mars.

He was joining his brothers, Gubra'il and Hanna, entrepreneurial craftsmen who were the first Bethlehemites in the Philippines. They had come a few years earlier in search of pinctada maxima oysters, which had thick, iridescent interiors that could be fashioned into intricate mother-of-pearl sculptures, inlays, and decorations, an artisanal specialty in Bethlehem since the early 18th century (brought by the Franciscan monks in the 15th century). The stuff—also called nacre—was mainly used for all things nativity-related: cameos, Bible covers, Stars of Bethlehem, nativity figures (especially Jesus and Mary), rosaries, boxes to store the rosaries, and almost anything even tangentially related to Jesus’s birth.

Christmas in Bethlehem
A craftsman working with mother of pearl on a street in Bethlehem, circa 1955. Popperfoto/Getty Images

The three brothers lucked out, happening upon a bountiful supply that was far superior to the oyster beds of the Red Sea. By 1893, the Dabdoubs had won a Medal of Honor for the exhibition of their craftwork at the World's Fair in Chicago, a laurel they would trumpet on their business cards for decades afterward. So glorious was their reputation that Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, commissioned a mother-of-pearl Bible from them. The brothers had ventured out from Bethlehem in the direction of their dreams and returned with the fullness that can only come from having realized them.

Come December, carolers around the world sing of the little town of Bethlehem as a sleepy hilltop village of shepherds: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” But Bethlehem has a long history as a global hinge of commerce. It is not merely the birthplace of Jesus Christ, but in many ways of Christmas itself.

VIDEO: Christmas in Bethlehem

In 1818, the same year that another carolers' staple, “Silent Night,” was written, Butrus Mikel, a member of my family’s Tarjameh clan, set up the first shop in Bethlehem for mother-of-pearl artifacts, in a building owned by the Armenian Apostolic Church in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity. Mikel triggered a wave of entrepreneurship among Bethlehemites, who began purveying their wares all over the world, boasting that they were made not just in the Holy Land, but in actual the birthplace of Jesus himself.

Around the same time, Christmas was becoming a global tradition. In the United States, the first version of “The Night Before Christmas” was published in 1823. An 1863 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly by Thomas Nast established the look of Santa Claus that we know today. By 1870, Christmas had become a federal holiday. Across the ocean, in London, the de facto capital of the world in the 19th century, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. That same year, Sir Henry Cole commissioned John Calcott Horsley to make the first Christmas card. An 1848 drawing in The Illustrated London News showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around a decorated Buckingham Palace Christmas tree further ensconsed the holiday in the English consciousness. The trappings of Christmas we know today came from dozens of cultures, including England (mistletoe), Italy (gift-giving), Scandinavia (stockings), the Netherlands (Santa Claus and his reindeer and elves), and Greece (wreaths). Only the star and the nativity scene originated in Bethlehem.

Christmas in Bethlehem
Two Muslim women snap a selfie in front of a giant manger, part of a Christmas display in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in December of 2014. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

I find something strange about nativity scenes: all over the world, families recreate this one intimate night in a forgotten village on mantels and windowsills and front yards and rooftops. On the other side of my family, an Irish bishop sent a letter home in the 1920s from Hànyáng, in China's Húběi province, where he lived at the time. It read in part, “We bought a little doll in Yokow, dressed it and laid it there on the straw in a little cradle of our own construction. You never saw anything like it.... There, before their eyes, was Bethlehem.”

Consider it the secret history of Christmas that this consensus of tradition emerged at the same time that the people of Bethlehem had begun braving oceans and strange new lands to set up shops, bringing with them their trinkets and baubles. My ancestors who went to Manila in search of finer mother-of-pearl? They soon had outposts in Australia, Chile, Cuba, Denmark, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, New York, and Paris. They did what had to be done in order to invent Christmas: they delivered it to the world, albeit more with the elbow grease of the elves than the theatrics of Santa Claus.

For centuries my ancestors in Bethlehem had been servants of the Franciscan monks—in Arabic, the name of the clan to which they belonged, the Tarjameh, means “the translators.” They knew English, French, Italian, Spanish, even a bit of German or Greek or Portuguese or Russian. Now these polyglot middlemen were on the march amid a nascent, pre-electric globalism. This was Bethlehem’s last, unsung crusade.

I didn’t know what I had expected when I finally visited my ancestral hometown recently. In my mind's eye, I imagined a romantic cosmopolis, a bazaar of dreams and derring do. One jump ahead of the slowpokes, one skip ahead of its doom. A place befitting its luminous lore, like Mont Saint-Michel or Machu Picchu. I would even have settled for a Pompeii.

I find something strange about nativity scenes: all over the world, families recreate this one intimate night in a forgotten village on mantels and windowsills and front yards and rooftops.

But the reality of Bethlehem today, of course, is much different. Surrounded by a 26-foot-tall concrete wall with barbed wire running atop, the city is part of Arabia’s Rubble Belt. As I walked along Star Street, the ancient pilgrimage path believed to have been followed by Joseph and Mary, past my grandfather's old gift shop, I saw vacuity and cupidity, like a child’s letter to the North Pole packed full of Amazon links. The commerce seemed to have curdled from inspired to insistent, from eclectic to egregious. Where is the magic in a gift shop warehouse jammed floor to ceiling with mother-of-pearl tchotchkes?

Maybe my reaction was just a sign of my age and childlessness. But to look across the hills and fields of Bethlehem today—where my family members have lived since arriving in the 13th century from that other ornament town, Venice—is to be reminded of the words of the Egyptian writer André Aciman: “Bethlehem…looks nothing like the town God’s son might want to be born in. But that’s the whole point. Everything here is meant to test one's faith.”

Christmas in Bethlehem
Bethlehem at dusk, 2005. © Mark Power/MAGNUM PHOTOS

That prosaic riddle is Bethlehem’s secret, its power and its scope. Having spent much of my life in London and New York, I tend to see the world as a palimpsest of layered beauty. Those great cities have told different stories over the centuries, each contributing to the plot like chapters. Bethlehem, by contrast, has for millennia told the same story over and over again. To go to Bethlehem today is to see how Christmas was exported to the world and then returned to its birthplace, coming full circle just like Mika’il and his brothers. There you will find glittering Filipino paróls (star-shaped Christmas lanterns), geometric Finnish straw himmeli (minimalist Christmas sculptures, for hanging), and the festive turrón dishes of Spain (honey-egg-and-almond Christmas desserts).

The Church of the Nativity, which is shared by three sects—Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic—adds to this sense of heterogeneity. It reminded me of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the only place in the world with art dedicated to both Jesus and Mohammed. The Church of the Nativity was built by the Roman-turned-Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great on the site of Jesus’s birth around 330 and has not been thoroughly renovated since 1478. It is world-worn and—like so many things that are inscrutably ancient—seems almost to be held together by whispers, by all the fractured, fractious stories its walls have seen and ache to share.

The whole of Bethlehem feels like that, like a cryptic crossroads. As a traveler, you are situated like a compass in that crossroads, needle quivering. Here and now. To and fro. Give and take. Up and at 'em. Far from the carolers' snow globe, Bethlehem is a place that comes at you from all directions and pulls at you in all directions, too. Jesus was likely born in April, not December. The real story of Bethlehem, however, is less about the virgin birth and more about the before and after, the seeking of shelter at inns and the moving on in the tense wake of Jesus’s arrival. Bethlehem represents the journey that never ends, the traveler who never stops traveling. Onward. Upward. Forward. Outward. Inward. Bethlehem asks you the question “what now?”—which is really the question "what next?" That's a sacred birth unto itself.

For more on Richard Morgan's Bethlehem ancestry, read his Kindle single, Born in Bedlam.

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