O Little Town of Bethlehem

In Bethlehem last night only 50 people attended the annual tree-lighting ceremony. Thanks to new COVID restrictions, West Bank’s Manger Square looked empty with its small crowd. It was a humbling sight. Christmas in the biblical city hasn’t been this poorly attended since King Herod was in office.

The tree-lighting event was virtual this year. “Virtual” is the most popular buzzword of 2020. Everything is virtual now. It’s only a matter of time before we have virtual dating, virtual weddings, and Zoom delivery rooms with virtual OB/GYNs. Don’t get me wrong, virtual things are great, but there’s nothing like “real” stuff.

Bethlehem’s scant crowd was mostly journalists, religious leaders, and various important people with names I can’t pronounce. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh attended. So did Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman, who said:

“We resorted to modern technology and to the virtual world to celebrate the lighting of the Christmas tree, wishing hope and optimism would flutter upon Palestine and the world.”

Normally at Christmastime, Bethlehem is overrun with non-virtual people. But those days are gone for now.

The devastating thing is, the Christmas season is usually Bethlehem’s money-making season. The December holidays are to Bethlehem what spring break is to Panama City Beach. The profits locals make in the tourist season hold them over for 11 months. I know this because (a) I live 20 minutes from Panama City Beach, and (b) I once knew a man from Bethlehem.

The latter happened purely by chance. I was introduced to my Bethlehem friend in one of those serendipitous moments you never see coming. He owned a sandwich shop near a hardware store. He was a rotund man, with a white walrus mustache, and skin like bronze.

I was at the hardware store on a construction-jobsite errand, picking up wax O-rings for toilets—I wasn’t a plumber, I was a tile guy. But somehow we lowly tile trolls got stuck with commode detail that day.

When I exited the hardware store I noticed this guy in front of his shop trying to drum up business. He said I was his first and only customer. He also said business was terrible, although he didn’t look depressed about it. This guy was so jolly he made Santa look clinically depressed.

He gave me the tour of his store, which was filled with touristy junk. He’d been desperately trying creative ways to turn a buck. So in addition to food he also sold souvenirs from Palestine, like olive-wood carvings, chess sets, spices, and (why not?) a full line of knock-off Converse All-Star sneakers.

Because I have the curse of gab, I lost track of time and wasted hours with him. One conversational tidbit led to another. Then things got interesting when he called his wife and daughters from the kitchen and they started serving piles of delicious food without even asking. I was to be this man’s word-of-mouth promotional experiment.

He kept bellowing in a cheerful voice: “You try theez a’foods, then you tell other Americans about me, no? You want more lamb, yes?”

I ate until I was sickened. The ladies kept bringing ethnic dishes, and I kept consuming until I lacked the muscular strength to chew. Midway through the meal the man began telling me about his childhood in Bethlehem.

“Wait,” I said between mouthfuls of what tasted like hush puppies on anabolic steroids. “You’re from the REAL Bethlehem?”

I’d never met anyone this cultured before. The most exotic person I’d ever known was a guy named Ray Ray from Texarkana.

Before he could answer, his daughters served something called “baklava.” It changed my life.

Thus, while I ate flaky dessert pastry, this man spoke of his homeland with a homesick timbre to his voice. He described his little town in painstaking detail so that it was like being there.

When he talked of the Church of the Nativity, which sits above the supposed birthplace of a famous carpenter, it sounded otherworldly. He described Solomon’s pools, and I suddenly longed to see them. The Milk Grotto Church. Manger Square. Saint George’s Monastery. And a 5,000-year-old olive tree, growing in a local village.

I could swear the little man had glass tears in his eyes when he spoke of how the town looked each Christmas season. He said the tourists swarmed the city each year, eating colorful foods, buying hand carved trinkets, T-shirts, fake designer handbags, and of course faux Converse tennis shoes.

Meantime, his wife and daughter kept shoving more baklava down my gullet in the forcefully hospitable way that strong women do. In fact, these ladies were so hospitable I’m surprised I didn’t leave the place betrothed to someone’s sister.

When I finished eating, it was late. So late, in fact, that my boss threatened to fire me when I returned to work. My supervisor was livid when I told him how I’d found this great sandwich shop filled with foreign foods and baklava. He didn’t move a facial muscle during my glimmering retelling of my afternoon. But then, he wasn’t exactly known to be a man of taste.

I didn’t care what anyone thought, I was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Later, on the jobsite, before we installed two toilets, my boss noticed my feet and laughed in mock amazement. He pointed and said, “What in the [cuss] are you wearing on your feet?”

I glanced at my brand new shoes. The Converse All-Star toe-guards were pristine white, straight from the factory.

“When did you buy those?” a coworker asked.

“Bought them today,” I said. “At a sandwich shop. They’re an early Christmas gift to myself.”

Because if there is one thing I know about Bethlehem, it will always be famous for its non-virtual Christmas gifts.


  1. David Charles Clubb - December 8, 2020 8:08 am

    Great story Sean. You inspire me to write as well as you do.

  2. Donna - December 8, 2020 10:55 am

    My husband and I took a tour group to the Holy Land in 2000. Our guide was from Palestine. He knew his history and he was Christisn. I’m so glad we went before the world went viral. You are right . Nothing beats the real thing. Yes, the greatest gift from Bethlehem is very real.

    Sean you are a beacon of light in these gloomy times. Thank you from the heart of Texas!

  3. stephenpe - December 8, 2020 11:38 am

    Back in 1976 the Lord brought me a Syrian when I was in college at the Univ of Fla. We became room mates. He liked to cook. Like Sean, my life changed. He made the tradional Arabic foods when he wasnt studying or working at Pizza Hut (and bringing home what he called mistakes) And he could make baklava………He is a retired engineer from Boeing living north of Seattle. I visit when I can and eat like a king. His name is Illeya Hamwi. Amazing man. He was always going to take me to Damascus for a visit.

  4. Alice Purim - December 8, 2020 12:21 pm

    I am delighted every morning with your writings. Thank you for use your talent to make our days better.

  5. Jan - December 8, 2020 1:51 pm

    I love all your stories, Sean, but today’s story is special. My family and I were scheduled to leave on March 2nd of this year to travel to Israel. Bethlehem was on our itinerary. It was to be the dream of my lifetime trip – the #1 country I always wanted to visit. Our trip was cancelled on Friday before we were scheduled to leave on Monday, March 2nd, due to Covid. Now I wonder if I will ever get to make that trip of my dreams. I can’t complain, however, so far my family and I are all healthy. God is good!

  6. Lee - December 8, 2020 2:25 pm

    Having been to Bethlehem twice, I strongly encourage you, Sean, and others to visit. If you go to the Holy Land, insist upon an Arab Christian guide. Most guides are Jews, but they will not take you into the West Bank, which includes Bethlehem.
    Pay attention to the Wall around Bethlehem, installed in the early 2000’s ostensibly to curtail the Gaza radicals using a highway through Bethlehem to enter Jerusalem.
    Visit Bethlehem Bible College. Ask about the soaring unemployment rate. Ask about Bethlehem youth and their leaving for better opportunities. Ask about the small percentage of Christians remaining there.
    Then, pray for this wonderful hamlet, that it may be freed from its 21st century Krakow-like existence.

  7. Pecos Kate - December 8, 2020 4:47 pm

    This story warms my heart and reminds me of my beautiful international friends from college days. I’ve never met anyone more thoughtful, kind and gracious.

  8. Anne Arthur - December 8, 2020 6:01 pm

    Oh Sean, nobody can tell this story like you, perfectly linking the US to Bethlehem. While reading, all the people and places i saw on my trip to Bethlehem rolled through my mind like a film. It’s an awesome place to visit. Even if you have to higgle hard with all those shopkeepers that are perfect lookalikes of your sandwich-shop-owner friend.

  9. Linda Moon - December 8, 2020 6:57 pm

    Unlike the Great Generation that produced a Baby Boom, will the Virtual Generation result in a Baby Bust? Not everything can be done virtually. I’ve questioned my younger family members using my actual voice, yet they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give me an answer. Moving on to a less awkward comment here: baklava is life-altering for me, and it can’t be experienced virtually. Thank God for Baklava and Bethlehem’s non-virtual Gift!

  10. elizabethroosje - December 8, 2020 11:46 pm

    Great story and their food is super delicious 🥰 My Husband and I hope to go to the Holy Land one day ❤🙏🕯

  11. christina - December 9, 2020 7:46 pm

    Sean, how can anyone tell these unique encounters in a more humorous, heartwarming and culturally connecting way than you did here? Thanks for this virtual gift!

  12. Robert Chiles - December 10, 2020 1:16 pm

    My wife makes the best Baklava

  13. Beverly Tsapralis - December 19, 2020 4:41 pm

    I married into a Greek family and love to eat my in-law’s cooking. Baklava is indeed a yummy dessert. But I think the Greeks push this one on us non-Greeks so we won’t eat up all of their favorite dessert. What is this secret dessert? Galaktoba…..it’s a custard dessert with a filo dough topping. Next time you are at Greek restaurant, ask them if they have it…..really delicious. Or find the nearest Greek Orthodox Church and go to their next church bizarre. The one in Atlanta is usually around Labor Day. It has all the Greek food and desserts along with Greek dancing for entertainment.


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