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Christmas near Bethlehem: A holy night in a holy city

By Brent L. and Wendy C. Top

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Dec. 22 2013 12:20 p.m. MST

A panorama from Shepherd's field, Beit Sahour, which is east of Bethlehem.

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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "With Wondering Awe," which includes a compilation of Christmas essays from several authors and is published by Covenant Communications.

Each Christmas Eve there is a big celebration at Manger Square in Bethlehem. Religious pilgrims come from far and near. Music fills the air. There are marching bands and choirs from all around the world playing and singing Christmas carols in their native languages. It is one big celebration culminating with a midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity.

My wife, Wendy, had hoped that while our family lived in Israel we would be able to participate in this traditional Christmas event. I, however, was not as enthusiastic. I hate big crowds, traffic jams and long lines.

My idea of a great Christmas Eve is a nice family dinner, a simple gift exchange, and children retiring to their beds early (the earlier, the better) with “visions of sugarplums” and Santa Claus dancing in their heads. But there was no way Wendy was going to let us spend Christmas Eve in our apartment. With Bethlehem only seven miles away, we were not going to miss out on the experience of being near Bethlehem (the operative word being near).

We reached a compromise: We would go to Shepherds' Field outside of Bethlehem and have our own Top Family Bethlehem Christmas celebration. Even as we loaded the family into our gray, gutless-wonder, Subaru station wagon, we were not all converted to the idea. It was somewhat cold and overcast that day.

“What if we get rained on?” one of the kids complained.

It was getting later in the day, and it seemed like there was still so much to do to be ready for Christmas.

“Can’t we just stay here and sing a few songs?” another child said.

“We are in the Holy Land, you know,” Wendy said insistently. So away we went.

There was still some murmuring as we parked along the side of the road and walked through the rocky terrain in search of the perfect place to view Bethlehem and have a brief — brief — Christmas program.

But whatever misgivings we’d previously held quickly dissolved as we caught our first glimpse of the twinkling lights of Bethlehem. The words to a beloved Christmas hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem" instantly permeated my mind:

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie.

It was a beautiful, clear evening — light-jacket weather — and only partly cloudy so we could see the stars as they began to appear in the sky. Even with our earlier misgivings about the weather, I had feared that there would be crowds at Shepherds' Field. However, there was no one else anywhere. We were all by ourselves.

We found a spot on top of the ridge overlooking the city where we each found our own private rock. There were no smooth or comfortable places to sit on, but, oh, what a view. As the evening grew darker, the city lights multiplied and magnified. In the starlight, we could see the Christmas lights adorning the churches and the tall Christmas tree erected in the middle of Manger Square. The song continued to illustrate the beauty of the view:

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by.

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