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Palestinian spirits sag as coronavirus steals Christmas

Taybeh, the only village in Palestine where the entire population is Christian, is having a dreary holiday season with residents confined at home due to the pandemic.
A man is pictured in the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 20, 2020 after it was re-opened for prayers following strict COVID-19 restrtictions. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP) (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

While visiting Taybeh, a village northeast of Ramallah in the West Bank that is known as the only town in Palestine where all residents are Christan, I found myself outside Zahra Thalji’s grocery shop on the main roundabout in the center of town. Thalji greeted me with a warm smile, until I asked why she had not put up a Christmas tree.

“What celebration? We live in a coronavirus nightmare,” she said.

Thalji, 72, has been working since 1978 alongside her husband in the grocery store in front of their house. 

This has been the couple's hardest Christmas season. “Even during the intifada, when young men were hiding from Israeli soldiers, we did not experience moments of fear like these days. For me, the true Christmas is when this pandemic is over,” Thalji lamented, her concern clear on her face.

Thalji recalled traditional holiday celebrations that have not changed since she was a child in her home village of Zababdeh, inhabited by both Christians and Muslims in the northern West Bank. She vividly remembers Christmas after the June 1967 Nakba and the occupation of her village and others.

She spoke of how her family celebrated the holiday and quoted her father, “We resist by continuing living our life and by being joyful despite the occupation.” After she got married and moved with her husband to Taybeh, Thalji continued to celebrate Christmas amid the uprisings and unrest. She said that Christmas was special in Taybeh, whose residents are all Christians. 

“COVID-19, however, defeated us all and put fear in our hearts. We were never afraid to leave the house. I cannot receive any of my family members or even visit them in the northern West Bank. Could it get any worse than this?” she asked with tears in her eyes. 

Thalji’s concerns are shared by the rest of Taybeh's residents, who have historically gone all out in celebrating Christmas. The village is usually vibrant during the holiday season, with every house decorating its own Christmas tree. All the residents, young and old, normally get together to put lights on a big one in the center of the town.

This year is different. The village tree was lit Dec. 12 with only clerics and representatives of the municipality present.

Youssef al-Basir, 74, recalled past holiday seasons. He said that his town was special, with collective celebrations and joy filling the village, and Muslims from neighboring towns visiting to participate in the festivities.

“This year we will not be able to go to the church to attend Christmas mass, as we are concerned over the coronavirus,” Basir told Al-Monitor.

Basir did not decorate his house, not even a tree. He said he will not leave the house and will only host his son’s family for Christmas eve. 

“I will be exchanging holiday greetings with friends and family over the phone or via social media, which I learned how to use during [lockdown] because of the pandemic,” he said. 

His son Raafat concurred as he told Al-Monitor that Christmas greetings will be exchanged over the phone with friends and family because the coronavirus outbreak in Ramallah, which is close to Taybeh, has reached their town. “I cannot put my father’s and my children’s health at risk,” he said. 

Youssef Basir recalled his childhood, when he used to collect flowers from the nearby forest and his mother’s garden to decorate the Christmas tree in the village center, opposite the historic Khodr Church. 

After lighting the tree, families used to gather in diwans (meeting houses) or large homes, where women would distribute cakes filled with dates. These gatherings would continue until dawn throughout the season.

With the Palestinian government’s Dec. 17 announcement of new measures against COVID-19, the village is bracing for new restrictions to be imposed on the celebration of Christmas.

The government said that it would allow prayers to be held in places of worship, including churches, during the holiday season, but according to health protocols that have yet to be announced. 

Johnny Abu Khalil, the pastor of the Latin Church in Taybeh, told Al-Monitor that the church and the municipality are obeying health guidelines. He said plans are being explored to allow all congregants to participate in the church service while respecting social distancing in the church’s hall, which can fit 200 people. The clergy hopes to conduct prayers and facilitate the participation of as many worshipers as possible by holding masses several times a day for small groups of people. 

“We will not allow the Easter scenario to play out again, when people were locked out of churches on Easter Sunday. This was an unprecedented event not just in Taybeh but in the entire world,” Abu Khalil said. 

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