Sometimes it just doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Christmas in the Holy Land 1985

I had nothing against the Franciscans before I got to Jerusalem, except maybe the notion that the Friars Minor weren’t the brightest or the best, that their education was non-existent, their spirituality a scandal and their poverty genteel but hardly shabby. You could say I had an open mind on the subject. And they did turn out a rather nice guidebook to the Jerusalem holy places. “Attenzione”, it said in an appendix, “certificates of pilgrimage are available at the Pilgrimage Center at the Jaffa Gate”. And more, Pope Leo XIII had been prevailed upon, and actually put it down in writing in his rescript of 1900 entitled Ad pecuniam consequendam, that a papal decoration, peregrinationis causâ, was available to all the faithful who had voyaged to the Holy Land.

Like the rest of the faithful, I fancy the occasional papal decoration, and I thought it would be pleasant, while waiting for my spurs and sword as a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, to perhaps go to the Jerusalem Center and collect my pilgrimage certificate and the trifle of a medallion, a small cross perhaps, with two or three words writ upon it in Latin.

The Pilgrimage Center in Jerusalem is actually one corner of the Christian Information Center at the Jaffa Gate that is shared, after who knows what pushing and shoving, by a number of Christian groups engaged in advising the visitor to the Holy Land. The Franciscan corner was easy to identify. There was the Franciscan duty officer of the day in an inner room making pleasant chat with an extremely attractive nun who had apparently taken a vow to wear eye-liner and Crusader-red lipstick all of her days. At her side was another female who might, by all appearances, have been redeemed no more than ten minutes earlier from a life of sin and sharp dealings in pharmaceuticals in a back room in the Suq al-Attarin. The Friar smoked indolently and contemplated the long-range possibilities of Martha and Mary before him. Well, personally I wouldn’t have hesitated for an instant: eye-liner never lies.

Coughing at the reception desk, drumming of fingers, clicking of lighter and, finally and effectively, the whacking of wallet on wood. He rose, reluctantly, came out to deal with the importune visitor. Sure, he said, no sweat on the pilgrimage certificate, if I had two bucks. A genuine cardboard scroll was handed to an underling to inscribe my name on it and presumably in the Book of Life as well since the list of plenary indulgences attached to the pilgrimage was longer than the two pair of legs twisting impatiently for Father’s return in the inner room.

“Well then, how’s about that decoration, Padre?”

He turned. “Ah, peccato, mio figlio.”  The Father did not have the licenza, you see, to deal with the decorazione. For that favor one must go higher, to the Custodia itself, and present oneself to the secretary of the Custos Sanctae Terrae, the Franciscan who watched over Palestine on behalf of the pope.

OK, fair enough, and since I had not yet ruled out the possibility of one day being named Custodian of the Holy Land, I thought it might be interesting to see what kind of furnishings went with the job. I imagined a spacious corner room with a view of both the Holy Sepulcher and the Templum Domini, now unfortunately called the Dome of the Rock. Put in a Mr. Coffee, I thought, bring over those young ladies from the Pilgrimage Center, and we’re in business.

“Per piacere, then, how about a ticket to Midnight Mass at Bethlehem?”

The eyes of Father Judas Iscariot, OFM narrowed with great theological suspicion.


Cattolico Romano Latino” I firmly corrected him, wondering why he had given me all those plenary indulgences without inquiring if they would stick to my necessarily Catholic skin but had problems of conscience—no, the word is inappropriate—problems of giving when it came to a cardboard square.

I was pocketing my ticket when a couple arrived at the counter, altogether too blond to be of the True Faith, Scandinavians maybe, or possibly worse, but as patently Protestant as if they had the Augsburg Confession tattooed on their foreheads.

“Catholic?” Father Judas inquired, already savoring the certain dismissal that would follow.

“No, we just wanted…”

“Over there,” he said, pointing to a dark corner where Protestants were given totally incorrect, misleading and heretical instruction on the Holy Places.

There would be none of those people, it was clear, at Midnight Mass in Bethlehem.

The Franciscan compound is in the Latin Quarter of the Old City, about four blocks from the Jaffa Gate if you know where you’re going, which I often don’t. My preferred route between any two places in the Old City always seemed to pass through Ascalon or Jaffa. But if you carefully follow the line of shops that sell olive-wood crèches, oversize rosaries, crowns of thorns and mother-of-pearl scapulars, you will eventually reach the Custodia without falling into either the Mediterranean or the Jordan. But first, just short of the doorway, I chanced upon the Franciscan Press Bookstore. OK, let’s see what they’ve been up to. What’s the harm, I murmured, a mantra I had developed to downsize every moral qualm that chanced to float my way. Aha, P. Vergilius Corbo, OFM, whose oily portrait inside the back flap tells all that needs knowing, has finally finished his work on the Holy Sepulcher. Three volumes, boxed, and at a mere $150. A steal, obviously.

“I’ll take one of those, Sister, and throw in the Bagatti and Baldi as well, why don’t you”.

“Dollars or shekels?” Sister Kathleen smiled sweetly. Sister Kathleen was from Wisconsin and had taken no vows except to be both sweet and chaste and, oh yes, to accept cash only.

“Check or Visa?” I inquired innocently.

“Sorry. Cash only.’

Sorry? Sorry! What was this, Uncle Steve’s on Canal Street? Even bagel schleppers in the lanes of Beersheva take personal checks. Sister Kathleen saw the smoke beginning to issue from the pilgrim’s ears.

“I’ll call the Director.”

The Director was another Italian Franciscan and so had no experience with any real money, only lira. No dice, mio fratello, he ruled over the phone. Cash only.

“Ask the Director,” I purred cunningly, “if I ordered the books, how would I pay?”

The Director was just short of being a complete fool. Even he could sniff out the rather inelegant Jesuit trap I had set up for him.

“Banker’s check,” he lied, not for the first time certainly, and not likely the last.

No boxed Corbo, no Bagatti, alas, and no Baldi Encheiridion. But stay, there was always the papal decoration they were shining up for me next door. Should I have worn a tie for the ceremony? No, better the pilgrim’s rustic simplicity, and perhaps the Secretary wouldn’t notice that the sweater was cashmere, like his own. The Secretary descended groggily to the porter’s lodge. Surely he wasn’t taking a siesta at ten in the morning?


No, cretino, I’m a Bulgarian anarchist whose hobby is melting down papal medals and turning them into gold fragmentation bombs.

Sicuro,” he concedes. “Testimoniale?”

What? “Che vuol dire, testimoniale, Padre?”

Now at last he’s smiling. A booklet emerges from his carefully tailored replica of St. Francis’ brown rags. It is in French, German, Italian, Spanish and English. He reads: “By the goodness of His Holiness Leo XIII…according to the rescript…letters from his parish priest, countersigned by the Ordinary of the Place, testifying to the petitioner’s blameless moral character and that he undertook the pious work of pilgrimage from the highest spiritual motives…”

Oh oh.

“You here with a group?”, he asks as his finger slides negligently down to the next paragraph.

The group, he knew and I knew, would have in its number a complaisant cleric who would sign almost anything put before him, even a testimonial to my moral probity.

“His Benignity has generously granted this decoration,” he continued reading, “upon the payment of a generous alms to advance the work of the Friars Minor in the Terra Santa…”

OK, now we’re on it. Written remarkably clearly and with a firm and simoniacal hand in the margin of the English version was an anonymous theological gloss on the uncertain phrase “generous alms”: “$100″.

“Check OK?” I smiled.

Ma certo, mio figlio.

Who says the Church never alters its dogmas?

I’m not one to hold grudges. I thought I’d give the Friars another chance at Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. The plan was for a private bus to collect all the Midnight Mass guests, that is, the ticket-holders, at the American Colony Hotel at 8 PM. Dress warmly, we were constantly advised, and bring your ticket and passport. Clear? It could not be clearer, except to two French couples who, when they had firmly settled themselves in what they had experimentally determined were the most comfortable seats on the bus, were desolated to learn that they were expected to have their passports somewhere in the chic summer resortwear they were wearing. What’s this?, they protest. Why wasn’t there une information, or at least une notice en fiche? cry these alleged descendents of Paschal, all oblivious of the overwhelming statistical evidence that every other person on the bus held passport in hand. There is much muttering, deep sighs, endless clucking until they finally go off with authentic Gallic ill grace to fetch their passports.

At the terminal near the Jaffa Gate we are transferred, along with all the others of the pious faithful going to Bethlehem that chilly but clear night, onto Egged busses for the half-hour shuttle service organized by the Israelis. But first a body search by those smiling boys and girls in full battle-dress with Uzis tucked under their arms. OK, a little security. Why not? We all passed our test –the French couples were constrained to leave their tennis rackets behind– and were bussed in a kind of silent good humor to the foot of the hill beneath the main square of Bethlehem. Up the hill on foot through a gauntlet of local hawkers of slides, postcards, fur hats and ice-cold Pepsi. Tourism is off year-round and the Jerusalem hotels are all half-empty. So the selling was aggressive, to say the least.

At the top of the hill the last traces of good humor vanish into the not so silent night and some of the less pious but more sensible immediately turn on their heels and go back to the busses and a warm bed in Jerusalem. Ahead is a large milling crowd straining against police barriers whose Hebrew lettering stands out like hostile neon in this very Arab town. Straining may be too mild a word. Struggling, perhaps, for the privilege of another body search before entering the town’s main square; fighting, maybe, to get through the barriers that are arbitrarily opened here or there on the strength of a shout or a smile, one could hardly tell which. Small children fall by the wayside and a number of undersized South American nuns. No matter; got to get through. I do get through and pass my second search. No bombs, no inflammatory pamphlets, no liquor.

Ah, booze! That it seems is part of the trouble: there had been a drunken brawl last year in Manger Square, as they insist on calling it. It is easy to see why. The square looks like a floodlit version of Washington Square Park in the late Sixties. All the international hippies, the Swedish and Dutch ultra-cools who got the news of beads and hair a mere fifteen years too late, have gathered for what they hope will be a “happening”. And so have the local Arab teen-agers who are trying to make out with what their imperfect perceptions tell them are hippie females. And lots more guys in fatigues with Uzis.

No liquor is being brought in maybe, but plenty is being sold in the restaurants around the square. Neon arcades on three sides, the souvenir shops and shish kebab parlors –God, the smell!– are at full blast, while on the fourth side, on a raised platform backed up against the rear of the basilica of the Nativity, are rotating groups of sincere but generally inept choristers from Malmö, Sweden, Johnson City, Pa. and Nieder Obergau, Bavaria. I think they are singing Christmas carols, but the PA system makes it difficult to tell. Bright lights go on and off as each group gets its thirty seconds of videotape exposure, maybe for Australian TV, maybe for showing in the cellar of the YMCA in Johnson City.

The choral yodeling have a very limited appeal, but the church opened at 10 PM and since it is now 10:30 I think I might amble in there and check out the liturgical preparations. Sure. Didn’t one know that it was necessary to go out through that same security barrier and in through an entirely different one that led directly, well, almost directly, into the church? No, apparently one did not know that since the cries of outrage at the checkpoint begin to drown out the choristers.

OK, OK, out then in.

“In” this time is through an iron gate opened occasionally and very narrowly to permit a few reverently to approach what is taking on all the trappings of an eighth sacrament, the Body Search. This one is in the the garden outside the basilica. Now the tickets for admission to the Mass are inspected, not by the Israelis, to be sure, whose interest in the liturgy at hand is, well, minimal, but by small members of the criminal class gotten up to look like Bethlehem Boy Scouts. Inspected three times, to be exact. At last, the church. No, not ushers in striped pants and cutaways in the vestibule, as once a very, very long time ago at a Midnight Mass in a remote corner of the Bronx. These ushers are wearing fatigues and they are bent, like all guys wearing fatigues in this corner of the world, on putting their hands one last time on my now much fondled body.

“That really a camera?” he wants to know.


“Take a picture and let’s see.”

“Sure. Smile.”

He smiles and I shoot him. Dead.

It’s the wrong church, of course. The real Basilica of the Nativity, the Crusader one built over the Byzantine one built over the one Constantine built over the manger is next door. But it is owned by those well known schismatics, the Greek Orthodox, and they’d be screwed dead before they’d let any Franciscans go mucking through a Latin Mass in their church. And besides, as everyone knows, Christmas is on January 6th and it’s called Epiphany, unless you’re a member of the former Commonwealth and then it falls on December 26th and it’s called Boxing Day.

St. Catherine’s is a nice spacious church, for all its inauthenticity. There are fifty-odd folding chairs set up in the nave and reserved for really important people under the watchful eyes of Boy Scouts from the same lethal troop that had inspected the tickets. The rest of us, it is clear, are expected to mill around in the aisles and transept, unless you chance on someone or something to sit on, a stone jutting or a known or public sinner, or, as I did later, the kneeler of a confessional box. I even overheard some confessions, a new sacramental I believe. Nothing sensational; mostly impure and/or uncharitable thoughts at the Franciscan Pilgrimage Center at the Jaffa Gate. Or in the church itself, since there, in very high profile, is P. Judas Iscariot, OFM himself, presumably sniffing out Protestants who had escaped his scrutiny in Jerusalem. And they, of course, are promptly cast out, turned over to the civil arm or, more terribly, sent to some declassé candlelight service at Shepherds’ Field, which is really no more than they deserve.

At 11:15 a procession enters, a long line of Franciscans wearing white albs so as to appear like genuine clerics, followed by a clearly very important chap with a miter and crosier.

“Oh, a bishop,” a nearby naïf sighs.

If he wasn’t at least a Cardinal, or a Patriarch in this city oozing with Patriarchs, I was leaving then and there.

“Nonsense, that’s the Patriarch,” I whisper, making it come true for at least one lying pilgrim and one poor soul from Terre Haute, Indiana, who looked back at me with eyes filled with tears of gratitude.

Whoever he is, the clerical gentleman can carry a tune, which he does for about a half hour. At 11:45 there is a loud clicking and there enters, rear right, a body of locals, the fathers of the Boys Scouts I’d guess, made up as Ottoman Chorbaji-bashis or Kislar Aghas or some such, with fez and scimitar and an extravagant number of silver buttons, tapping their silver-tipped staffs on the stone pavement. Also known as “the Entry of the Dignitaries”, those special people whose busy and important lives precluded their standing on line in the cold. Consular officials, most of them, I would guess, and topped off by Joan Kennedy, still flushed and excited from her last body search. God, this is the real thing! Though not so real, of course as the following week when Liz Taylor hit Eretz Israel. She visited a kibbutz and was hospitalized immediately thereafter. Food poisoning is my guess.

The rest is familiar, a Pontifical (Patriarchal?) High Mass, sung in Latin, which is nice, and though I can’t really see much from my confessional step, I had been through one or two of them before –I love con-sub-stant-i-al-em Pa-tri when it’s hummed– and so I can pretty much imagine the action in the sanctuary. In fact, the whole thing would have been a wash if the disembodied choir –at ground level everything’s pretty much disembodied except for shoes and boots– had not at some point sung “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“. For one brief moment it seemed like Christmas. No, for two brief moments: when we get back to the hotel at 2 AM, those true Christians, the staff of the American Colony Hotel, have coffee, hot chocolate, mulled wine and a Christmas tree awaiting us. Lovely place. Recommended.

Among the many delights of the American Colony is that they have that noblest of all human creations, a buffet breakfast, enlivened in this holiday season by a daily cabaret français. The first of the performers arrives in the dining room at 6:30 AM so I must have a care that I am already in my place, back to window, with a commanding regard of all entrances and exits, all the tables and the buffet presentation in the middle of the room.

M. Deshabille enters left still wearing what appear to be the tops of his pajamas. I feel I must be wrong, that this is some kind of couture pour le petit dejeuner, but who can be certain in these matters? He pauses portentously at the doorway and booms an indiscriminate “Bonjour!” at the occupants of the dining room. I am the sole occupant of the dining room. Eyes buried in my coffee, I mutter what I hope will reach his ears at “Guten Morgen“. The waiters pop out of doorways and just as quickly retreat since they well know what must follow by all the rules of the much vaunted French logic, a personal handshake for everyone in and out of reach, from captain to chef to waiter, even unto the busboys who have fled in terror to the ladies’ room.

Bonjour, monsieur.”

He is upon me, hand extended, head bobbing.

Je m’excuse,” I try, “Je suis Belge“.

He recoils, affronted.

He is finally seated, smoking his Gitanes and suspiciously eyeing the buffet table. The others arrive; more salvos of “bonjour” and ever more complex rounds of handshaking. The room trembles with shaking paws.

The social amenities discharged, there begins le grand débat on the nature and operation of a buffet breakfast. I always thought the French had invented it (or perhaps fr. buffet < it. buffa, a clownish act, something calculated to soil the clothes.), but I must have been dead wrong since they didn’t have a clue as to its function or operation. One type carries off to his own table the entire serving platter of cheese, a local variety that compares very favorably with Monterey Jack. Another draws up his chair to the buffet table and begins to eat there.

Mais, c’est drôle. Pas de vin avec le petit dejeuner, n’est-ce pas, monsieur?”

Pardon, je suis musulman,” I explain. “Pas de vin jamais, tu sais.”

 “Ah bon.”

They are saved from complete folly. There is a sophisticate among them, a worldling who possibly has travelled as far abroad as Neuilly. “Buffet, buffet,” he shouts with sudden comprehension. “Come and get it!” “Ah bon,” they cry as one. They go and get it, though the absence of wine is still thought to be remarkable by some. Meanwhile the waiters are kept busy in the kitchen putting tap water into empty Evian bottles. The guests’ livers will surely explode as one when they get back to the XIe Arrondisement.

One of the new technocrats for whom France is slowly acquiring a reputation has supplied himself with the latest marvel, a large tape player, or boite-négre, as they call it in their charming way, and he plays it aloud for all of us so that no one, not even the stranger by the window, will be deprived for a single instant of the song stylings of Charles Aznavour.

Ah oui, ah bon, écoutez le grand Charles!

Soon, barely into the smoked fish and fruit course as a matter of fact, the cry of “l’autobus! l’autobus!” is heard. No one attends. The surgical peeling of apples and pears goes on with much mutual admiration and comment on knife style and technique. A large Israeli appears at the door, Uzi under his arm.

Bonjour,” they cry, rising to shake his hand. “Le conducteur!“.

Shalom,” he commands. “I’m leaving in two minutes. If you’re on the bus or not on the bus, it makes no difference to me. Understand? Shalom!”

Their pretended ignorance of all English discourse falls away. Two minutes! Barely time to shake hands with all the waiters, staff, sous-chefs and the tres gentil Américain de Sud by the window.

“Stop that crap and get your passports,” the Israeli growls, slipping the safety off his Uzi for greater comprehension.

They move, vite, vite.

Wiedersehen“, I call after them, lying once again.

If you miss Christmas in Jerusalem, which I somehow felt I had, there are plenty of second chances. The Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, both Jacobite and Nestorian, the Copts, Abyssinians and Maronites all give each other a lot of room on the liturgical calendar, I suppose so they won’t come to blows in the middle of the services. So the Christmas schedule they hand out at the Christian Information Center looks a little like an airlines timetable.

“01/03/85: Greek Patriarch arr. 2:30 AM…Gk. Patr. dep. 4:22 AM.”

My choice was the Abyssinians.

“01/06/85: Abb. Patr. arr. 11:30 PM, Dayr al-Sultan.”

The Abyssinians came late to Jerusalem, long after all the best Holy Places were spoken for, certainly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where the prime berths were occupied from at least the fourteenth century. They got a little temporary purchase next to the Copts for a while, but only until the Copts noticed them there and told them to find themselves another spot to pray in, preferably in Tel Aviv. So the poor Abyssinian monks ended up on the roof of the Holy Sepulcher where they now live quietly in a kind of hut village called Dayr al-Sultan and hope the vindictive Copts won’t notice. There is a kind of reverse periscope that gives them a very narrow view down into the church below.

I had never before been in Jerusalem, nor in any Middle Eastern city, for that matter, in the middle of the night. I immediately understood why. Inside the Jaffa Gate and the Old City all life ceased: not a soul, not a sound; empty streets, dimly lit; shops tightly shuttered, sealed, blind faces. Only the sounds of my own footfalls on the stone pavement. Where were all those bright lads and lasses with the Uzis now that I might need them? How about a body search, guys? I find the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The doors under the Crusader facade are wide open, lights on inside. Expecting guests? I look inside. The tomb is empty, as someone once said, except for a policeman sitting on a wooden chair. He smiles, waves. Midnight tomb duty can’t be much fun, even in that tomb. I wave back from the lighted doorway and let him get a look at me. Maybe he’ll have to identify the body later.

Dayr al-Sultan, the Abyssinian church-cum monastery-cum-village on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is entered around the corner, past the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, past the Russian Hospice (the Russians weren’t flying this Christmas. “Christmas services uncertain; call first,” the handout had warned.), around another corner, ten paces, turn sharply left go up the stone ramp. I had checked it all out in the daylight. The ramp curled up and around and ended in total darkness. I feel for the iron gate I know is somewhere ahead. It is there, and open. I go in.

I can hear drums somewhere in the blackness on the left. But I have no idea how to get through the maze of trees and alleys and huts that had all looked so charming in the daylight. Ahead and far above is the roof of the Holy Sepulcher church, an illuminated cross on top, the policeman warm and snug within. Under me, I guess, is the Chapel of Saint Helena.

“Is that you?” someone asks in English out of the darkness.

“It sure is,” I lie a bit. It was after all me.

He comes forward. He is a European.

“Oh,” he says, “it’s not you. Go that way.”

I do and I never see him again. Maybe he was killed by the Copts. I follow where he had pointed, down a narrow alley between the closed and darkened cottages. Ahead of me is an open door, with a light inside, and drumming. It is the Abyssinian church.

The entry into the church is from the front, on the left side of the sanctuary. There are ten or so clerics in a circle in the tiny space in front of the altar-screen, and beyond them a congregation of thirty or forty fill the entire church, the entire Abyssinian community in Jerusalem, I suppose. They pay no attention at all when I make my somewhat uncertain entrance. The monks are tall, all in black robes with black pill-box hats on their heads; the congregation is standing wrapped head to toe in white cotton or perhaps woolen shawls. Upon the wall a mustached King Solomon looks down, all smiles, on a gaudily depicted Queen of Sheba. The ladies sitting underneath in white shawls look to be in a great deal better shape than their famous ancestor.

I don’t know when the service began or where we now stand in it since it seems to have no parts and no movement forward or backward. I guess they are reciting the office, or rather chanting it, accompanied by a single large drum in the hands of one of their number seated on the floor in their midst. Each monk holds a silver sistrum, a kind of tuning fork with rings strung between the tines, slowly swung forward, slowly back, a soft rattling of metal on metal. The Patriarch, dressed like the others save that his pillbox hat is satin and he holds an ivory staff in his hand, comes out from behind the altar-screen at 11:30, as promised on the schedule. He smiles upon us all; this is, after all, a kind of family celebration, and it was unlikely that the two or three white strangers in parkas and gloves are secret agents of the Copts.

The Patriarch takes his place on a lofty pink and gold throne on the right of the sanctuary. The monks pause, clear their throats and confer briefly –“Can anyone make the high notes in ‘O Holy Night’?”– and take up the office once again. And since they pay no heed to Vatican II or anything else that has happened since the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century, they chant it as they have from the beginning, in Classical Ge’ez.

Midnight comes and goes, then half-past, 1 AM. The chanting and drumming go on, apparently its own liturgical justification, and the Abyssinian Patriarch on his throne benignly beats time, sometimes with his ivory staff, sometimes with his fingers. The monks relieve each other on the drum. We are incensed a number of times by a gentleman in a spectacular crimson and gold cope. I don’t know what I expected to witness. Something like a Western Christmas? A benign and comfortable Irish priest to come out from behind the alter-screen and explain to me once more the meaning of those familiar texts. Ego hodie genui te. “This day have I begotten Thee.” No, not this day or this night. It is not to be, whatever it was I expected. The congregation stands relaxed and at ease with itself and its own liturgy, expecting nothing. They are surely Christians –I can hear it through the chanting, through the Ge’ez even– but their Christmas is not mine, nor mine theirs. I leave, grateful to them for I don’t know what. Maybe just for sharing their worship so familiar yet so remote from my own. I know I felt more like a Christian than when I went in. Maybe it was a kind of Christmas.


No Comments

Leave a Reply