Palestinian family gathers in Bethlehem for traditional celebration   2009/12/28
By: Judith Sudilovsky of Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- The doorbell rang at the stately Sansour home and, amid smiles and hugs, the long-awaited uncle, Dr. Ramzi Sansour, and his family entered to a clamor of cheerful greetings from his brother and sister and their families.

Journeying from Ramallah, West Bank, to spend the holiday with relatives, the family passed smoothly through the Qalandiyah checkpoint, Sansour said: It was the heavy traffic on Christmas Eve that caused their delayed arrival.

This time each year the Sansours -- a prominent Catholic family originally from Jerusalem -- look forward to gathering with their children for a traditional Christmas celebration.

"We used to be 10 brothers and sisters," said Marcel Sansour Batarseh, 70, who is married to Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh and whose own three grown children and seven grandchildren live in California. Today family members "are all over the world, but we still gather here like we used to when my late parents were alive."

"I am not encouraging them to come back because of the situation here," she added, referring to her children.

Now it is the eldest of the Sansour brothers, Shibly, 74, who hosts the holiday dinner with his sister and brother in the home where their parents settled after fleeing Jerusalem in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war.

Rena Sansour, 39, Shibly's daughter, arrived a day earlier from California, where she lives with her two children and second husband. A clinical audiologist who had opened the first audiology clinic in the West Bank and Gaza, she left the country because of her first husband's job. She remained in the U.S. with her children when the second intifada broke out in 2000. She said she dreams of returning to Bethlehem someday but knows she must wait for her husband's retirement.

On Christmas Eve the family home was full of holiday cheer. A white plastic Christmas tree decorated with blue ornaments was perched on a baby grand piano. The dining room table brimmed with international delicacies prepared by the housekeeper, Nadia. Christmas carols in English played in the background.

Last year Christmas celebrations were marred by the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip. This year Bethlehem's Christians, while not forgetting the tragedy of the war, focused on fully celebrating the holiday, said Doris Sansour, 21, Shibly's granddaughter.

"You have no idea how many parties there are in Bethlehem tonight," she said, recalling a spontaneous street celebration in front of the house the previous night. "The young people like to celebrate with friends. But I like to spend Christmas with my family. I really appreciate Christmas and the time we get to spend with family. We shouldn't waste that time. It only comes once a year."

The celebration included attending midnight Mass at Bethlehem University, where Doris is a student. The quiet atmosphere there offers more chance for reflection than at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity with its throngs of visitors, she said.

"This is the best part of the family Christmas," said Doris as she watched her uncle Ramzi, 61, dance with his French-born wife, Lorraine, 54, then with his daughter, Rasha, 20. "I feel very happy because we are all gathering together. We don't see each other so often. On Christmas we put on Christmas carols, do the presents and it is peaceful."

When Shibly Sansour brought out a cassette of Christmas carols, the young cousins were confounded by the technology, and the tape unwound in their hands. There was laughter and teasing as the family moved to the dinner table.

Shibly's 24-year-old grandson and namesake was on break from school in Jordan, where he is studying medical analysis. He said he plans to work toward a master's degree in England or Canada, specializing in microbiology. He knows there will be little work at a decent salary in Palestinian hospitals if he returns.

"If I get a good offer in England or Canada I will stay," he said. "It is sad because my family lives here and we have a tradition of staying together. It is difficult, but wherever I see will be best for me I will prefer that."

Outside, streams of cars drive by their home on the way to Manger Square where pilgrims, tourists and local Palestinians -- mostly young Muslim men -- are congregating. The locals listen to live music blasting from a stage in front of the Church of Nativity.

Rena lamented the dwindling number of Christians in Bethlehem. Soon, she said, they will be only a memory.

The younger Shibly said the declining number of Christian residents and increasing fundamentalism among Muslim residents has left fewer and smaller pockets of Christians, leading them to live more insular lives. Muslims are becoming more religious, whereas Christians don't like to talk about religion, he said.

"That is why you don't see many (local) Christians on Manger Square on Christmas," he said. "I feel sorry about that now; but in Europe they will be sorry in 40 years."

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