Ghosts of Dec24 Past

It’s not December 24 anymore cause I was too lazy to get this down yesterday (Merry Christmas! by the way). To compensate, I will write about both days in two different years.

I spent Christmas last year on a Greyhound bus from California to Nevada. It was on a trip taken with two other people during Winter Break. We chose California (with stops in Vegas and the Grand Canyon) thinking it would be warmer than Chicago. It was (we missed snowstorm Draco which brought the first snowfall to the city after 290 days of no snow). But it was not the Florida warm we were expecting (another one of the STIDs). On Christmas Eve we took the morning YARTS bus from Merced to Yosemite (the California trip was a road trip with the car substituted by the bus) and spent the day spotting coyotes, drinking egg nog latte, sending postcards (special Yosemite postmark!), attending a service at the Yosemite chapel, wading through knee-deep snow in the moonlight to catch the bus back, and then freezing our asses off waiting for a 1:30 am Greyhound to LA. You read that right. From 9 pm to 1 am, I sat in an open bus station in freezing cold (by my low standards atleast), waiting for a bus to take me out of Merced. I had grossly overestimated American consumerism and Californian weather, thinking places would be open on Christmas Eve, it wouldn’t be cold, the returns from saving a night’s rent would be greater than the costs of catching a midnight bus (STID # 3). Plus I was being adventurous.

Needless to say, I got on the bus, unfroze myself and reached Las Vegas on Christmas day sometime in the afternoon. We spent Christmas Day checking into the hostel/hotel and then walking around the famed Strip. The lights in The Strip are dazzling. I hadn’t been to NYC by then and the New York-New York hotel was impressive, with the roller coaster ride and all. More impressive was the Statue of Liberty model in a gift shop made completely out of M&M’s. In the far distance, you could see the pyramids and the Sphinx, the Eiffel tower, Mandalay Bay, Caesars Palace. We walked from MGM Grand to the famed fountains of Bellagio and then walked back, encountering many cartoon characters on the way. No gambling, no alcohol and no shows.

On Christmas Eve, 2010 I was taking exams in Herzliya. Not only did the school make us take two exams that day, with a mere 15 minute break in the middle, we weren’t even told the schedule of the exams. So I got to know which subject it was when I opened the question paper. Our plan was to spend Christmas in Bethlehem so once we were done with the exams, we got on a bus to Tel Aviv, transferred to a bus to Jerusalem, met the remainder of the group there, walked over to the Arabic bus station near Damascus Gate and got on to another bus to Bethlehem. I could see the separation barrier snaking though the terrain but don’t remember crossing it, or seeing any checkpoints on the way. The bus dropped us close to the Manger Square. My shirt said “God is too big to fit into one religion” and one the nuns we asked for directions commented on it. Nothing bad, just this judgmental look-over. Not a good time or place to proclaim my atheism.

We checked into the ‘House of Peace’ hostel, dropped our stuff and then set out to explore. The Church of the Nativity (the place which marks Jesus Christ’s birthplace) was out of the question so we were just roaming around in “downtown” Bethlehem. Manger Square was brightly lit and decorated with Christmassy stuff, lots of people, lots of security guards making barricades, lots of live Christmas music. I made a dinner out of falafal in pita bread and patiently waited for Mahmoud Abbas’ cavalcade to arrive. He, along with other West Bank dignitaries, comes to Bethlehem every year to attend the Midnight Mass. When he finally did arrive, the crowds swelled so much that I don’t think I even got to see him. One of the girls in my group did brave a lot of groping (her words, not mine) to secure a picture of him on her DSLR. I did catch a glimpse of the second-in-command though. We left for the hostel with the others making plans to come back to attend the Midnight Mass. I stayed in bed (mattress of the floor) and read Sophie’s World until I fell asleep.

Christmas morning I got up bright and early and set out to explore. My first stop was the Church of the Nativity. There was hardly anyone around (it was six in the morning) so I was able to peacefully admire the church. I didn’t go all the way to Grotto of the Nativity (the underground cave where the birth is supposed to have taken place) but sat in the pews and soaked in the morning. Later I went to see the adjoining Church of St. Catherine. My favourite part in the whole complex is the Door of Humility which marks the entrance to the church complex. The original archway was broken and filled with stones to leave behind a smaller, rectangular entrance. The point is to make people bend when entering the church. With the head bowed down, instead of being held high.

Next I tried to find the separation barrier to see the “world’s largest protest graffiti”. I’m a big fan of art, specially since I can’t draw myself. I tried really hard but I couldn’t find the wall, despite the Lonely Planet map. So I went back for breakfast and to see if anyone had woken up. We ate toast/ jam and pita/hummus, settled our bill (with lots of haggling for being cheated), and left for Manger Square. The queue at the Door of Humility was long enough to put everyone off the idea of visiting the church, so we left to find the separation barrier. And find it we did. There is lots of inspiring art on that wall and none of it is anti-Semitic (here I’m assuming that wanting to bring the wall down is not Antisemitism). We walked along the length of the barrier, clicked lots of photographs, and then proceeded to cross the security checkpoint. Waiting for us on the other (Israeli) side was another queue, this one for the buses back to East Jerusalem. By nightfall we were safely back on the Mediterranean coast.

P.S. My friends got nowhere near the Church of the Nativity on 24th night. They stayed out till 2 am, trying to find the place where they wouldn’t be cold and would also be able to hear the Mass. No such place exists. Please book your tickets well in advance if you want to attend the service.

This post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge-


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