I feel somewhat guilty writing this post for it is not everyone who gets to experience Christmas in the Holy Land. We have had a wonderful few days and offer these photos in gratitude to good parents and loving family and friends who we are missing this Christmas season.
One of our favorite Christmas carols this season is "How far is it to Bethlehem" Its lyrics fit much of what we have felt and experienced this Christmas season:
How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?
Can we see the little child,
Is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?
May we stroke the creatures there,
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
If we touch his tiny hand
Will he awake?
Will he know we've come so far
Just for his sake?
Great kings have precious gifts,
And we have naught,
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we brought.
For all weary children
Mary must weep.
Here, on his bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.
God in his mother's arms,
Babes in the byre,
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart's desire.
On Tuesday the 22nd the Mahaba Kindergarten at Augusta Victoria put on a Christmas program. It included three costume changes and carols in Arabic and English. Most of the Palestinian children were Muslims so at the program there were a lot of mothers with heads covered with hijabs watching their children singing carols while dressed in nativity clothes or as little Santas. Will and Nirvana (to his left) sang a duet of "We wish you a Merry Christmas". Marie helped a lot with the program. Miss Margaret knows that Marie can do anything and so she has made Marie her right hand volunteer. During the fall Marie taught the children to sing "I'm bringing home a baby bumble bee" and "Five little monkeys" so Miss Margaret had Marie lead the child at the Christmas program. Marie also helped by hemming Santa costumes.
Miss Margaret (at right) is the sister of the Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem (left in photo). He and the director (right) of the Lutheran World Federation of Jerusalem, which runs the kindergarten and Augusta Victoria hospital, were the honored guests and had front rows seats.
For Christmas Eve we journeyed to Bethlehem. We had hoped to spend the whole day there, but ended up having to scale back our activities. What we did get to do was awesome (and that is not a word I use very often). Our first stop was at the security check at the Wall. As we drove up in our hired van we smiled at a sign posted on the Israeli side by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism wishing all the pilgrims passing into Bethlehem a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Next we were greeted by smiling Israeli soldiers who upon seeing three kids in the van offered them bags of treats. Amazing! We loved the good will toward men and hope it will continue each and everyday. The final security stop was equally friendly and easy.
Once in Bethlehem, graffiti on a wall reminded us of reality: two peoples inextricably linked and yet unwilling to work together.
By previous arrangement we spent a few hours at the Holy Family Children's Home (Creche de la Sainte Famille) playing with Palestinian Arab children (infant to five years old)--some are orphans but others have been abandoned because of health problems or because they were born out of wedlock and thus rejected in order to restore family honor. I love the statue of Jesus with outstretched arms.
Sister Sahar (in red) is the Relief Society President and helped spear-head the visit after several families expressed interest in making the visit. She brought new items of clothing for the children. She is being helped by branch members.
Marie made bubbles and salt clay for the children to play with.
The children had a hard time figuring out how to wave the wands to make bubbles, but this little girl improvised and had a great time blowing a bowl full of bubbles.
Joel using a bottomless water bottle to blow a bubble.
Sarah was wonderful with the children and bonded with this girl while playing with salt clay.
After playing outside for a while we moved inside for the highlight of the visit--holding the little children.
I held Ehab--he shares a name with my good friend and Nazareth roommate Ehab Abunuwara. He was a happy content little boy who enjoyed looking at Christmas tree lights and bouncing to "trot trot to Boston"
The "orphanage" is a beautiful facility with a dedicated staff. We were all impressed with the women caregivers and with how clean, healthy and happy the children are under their care.
It was hard to leave. If travel conditions were better Marie and I would love to make visiting the Holy Family Children's Home a weekly tradition. Back in 1982 we BYU students visited a different orphanage in Bethlehem every week. Since then, one of my secret desires has always been to run an orphanage. Anyone want to provide the funding?
We then traveled through the crowded streets of Bethlehem to the town of Beit Sahour to the home of Sister Sahar. She invited all of the Latter-day Saints in Bethlehem that day for a wonderful Christmas Eve gathering--half of the crowd were Bethlehemites who could not go to a branch outing on the other side of the wall. Here is the view from Sahar's street looking north to "shepherd's field". In the distance is the southern Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. Interestingly, at the same time I took this photo other members of the branch were gathered on the Jerusalem side of the wall near Har Homa for a shepherd's field nativity program. This gathering included U.S. consulate employees who are not normally allowed to travel into Bethlehem.
We ate delicious stuffed roasted chicken. Then wonderful Sahar treated all of the children to gifts. This gathering with family and friends was a great substitute for us having to miss the annual Tueller and Emmett family Christmas gatherings. Our return drive through Bethlehem felt a lot like Christmas--there were lighted decorations on the streets and many of the homes. As we approached the Israeli checkpoint we all pulled out passports, but there was no need--the soldiers upon learning and seeing we were Americans waved as through with a smile. Nice. On this side of the wall the lighted decorations were blue and menorah shaped for Hanukkah. For the twenty minute drive back to the center the Emmett and Allen families enjoyed singing a host of Christmas carols.
For our tree this year we borrowed one (after the students had departed) from the lovely decorations at the Center. This one was in the main office. Sarah then spruced it up with home made decorations.
Christmas morning with new scarves and hats for our day after Christmas trip to London.
Christmas morning view. At midnight all of the bells of Jerusalem's churches peeled out loud. It was a wonderful sound.
Christmas breakfast: Swedish pancakes (with fresh strawberries and cream or lemon and powdered sugar) in honor of great grandmother Elva Geneva Carlson Tueller whose parents came from Sweden; sliced oranges with powdered sugar (an Emmett tradition), chocolate milk from Kibbutz Yodvata and real Hormel bacon bequeathed to us by departing nursing professor Susan Dicus and her husband Ken. The kids have enjoyed staying home today playing with gifts and watching DVDs. We'll have pot roast for dinner and then a carol sing-a-long with branch members this evening. At 2:45 AM we'll leave to catch our 6:15 flight to London, where we're hoping to see some snow.