Wednesday, 18 December 2013

'One of my cherished remembrances of the Holy Land': Lord Kitchener and Christmas at Bethlehem

It might be all last minute shopping, frantic gift wrapping and over done turkey these days but have you ever wondered what Christmas was like in the Holy Land in the nineteenth century? Well you're in luck as I am celebrating this blog's first Christmas with a detailed account by Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a British Field Marshal and colonial administartor who died during the First World War, of 'Christmas at Bethlehem'. This article, together with another, was found among reports and other papers of the late Lord Kitchener, in his handwriting and over his signature after his death. It was published in the January 1917 issue of Palestine Exploration Quarterly.

'On Christmas Eve of 1875 we rode from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to be present at the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church. The road, so well known to all travellers in the Holy Land, passes the Well of the Magi, where tradition relates that the three kings from the East again beheld the guiding star.

"A little farther on is a still more ancient site, the Tomb of Rachel, now an ordinary Mahommedan tomb without any appearance of remote antiquity; yet this spot has been venerated by Christians, Mahommedans, and Jews from the earliest times as the burial-place of the mother of Benjamin. It agrees so well with the Bible narrative of the death and burial of Rachel on the way to Bethlehem, that it seems hard to find objection to the genuineness of its position, and yet there are many difficulties to be reconciled before it can be accepted without any doubts. On our, arrival at Bethlehem we found the inhabitants returning from Beit Jala, where they had been to meet and bring the Latin Patriarch to their town. Any honoured person is thus met in Palestine by the inhabitants before arriving at the town, and conducted the rest of the way with great rejoicings, the mounted portion of the escort performing fantasia in front, galloping wildly about, shouting, and firing their' rusty old flintlocks into the air. On returning from Beit Jala they had started on the Jerusalem road in order to meet the French Consul, who arrives in great state as the representative of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Bethlehemites are well-to-do people, earning a good deal from their speciality of carving religious subjects in mother-of-pearl which they sell to pilgrims and travellers; they are mostly Christians, and their women have a well-deserved reputation for good looks which is enhanced by their rather peculiar costume. It consists of a dress of red and blue woollen stuff, open at the throat, and with long hanging sleeves, a mantle of the same hangs down behind, and a long white veil, sometimes embroidered, and held up by a high cylindrical bonnet, forms their headdress; this resembles the ancient oriental headdress worn by female figures representing Syrian towns seen on coins. The lower part of the bonnet is ornamented sometimes by strings of coins closely packed together, and necklaces of silver coins are worn with full dress. A Bethlehem woman might almost start a money-changer's shop with the amount of coins she wears; some are old family heirlooms, and it is their great ambition to put on as many coins as possible. This desire is fraught with some danger, as several of these women were murdered for their ornaments in the short time we were at Jerusalem. Nothing is prettier than a crowd of these women in their long white veils, bright dresses, and sparkling jewellery. The men delight in very rich and full turbans of all colours, and very bright oriental dresses."

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