Thousands of people come to the Beit Jala St. Nicholas Festival, honoring the town's patron saint. Street parades, fun fairs, performances, and religious processions are all part of the celebration in this predominantly Christian town. Roman Catholics and Lutherans participate with the Greek Orthodox majority in the city-wide celebration.
In AD 305 monks from Anatolia, in Asia Minor, came and established a monastery with several caves and houses. When St. Nicholas made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, tradition holds that he lived in one of these caves from 312–315. (The Patriarchate of Jerusalem still has a text from Nicholas' hand.) The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Beit Jala is built on the site of St. Nicholas' cave and the Greek Orthodox St. Nicholas Monastery in Jerusalem is on the site of a home where Nicholas stayed for a year.
As patron saint, St. Nicholas is regarded as the defender and protector of Beit Jala. During World Wars I and II, it is said that St. Nicholas stretched out over the village, protecting the people. Locals also report that he was seen with hands outstretched, catching bombs aimed at Beit Jala following the State of Israel's 1948 declaration of independence. One resident reports, "No bombs reached Beit Jala. Only the tower of the St. Nicholas Church was damaged. We know it was St. Nicholas that saved Beit Jala from any problems."
During the second intifada (2000-2005), a Palestinian gunman was near the church during a gun battle with Israeli soldiers across the valley. The Palestinian said he saw a man with a white beard standing hear the church protecting it from bullets.
Nicola Dukmak, a Catholic who lives next to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, said his family had to leave during the battle and trusted St. Nicholas would protect their house; the house was not damaged. "I am proud to have this name," he said. "I feel special because I am from Beit Jala and I have this name of St. Nicholas, who protects us. It is a special name for Beit Jalla. If you meet someone named Nicholas, you can be almost sure he is from Beit Jala."
"In all of the Christian houses here you will see pictures of St. Nicholas. They pray to him for protection, when they have any problem, even problems at home they pray to him," according to Father Faysal Hijazen, parish priest, Catholic Church of the Annunciation. "People believe he is the protector of the city."
Residents also pray to St. Nicholas when help is needed. One woman remembers everyone gathering in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church to pray for rain to end a terrible drought. She says, "Before we reached our homes the rains came. I saw that rain with my own eyes."
St. Nicholas' Day is part of a three-day celebration beginning with St. Barbara on December 17, then St. Saba on the 18th, and culminating in St. Nicholas Day on the 19th. The day begins at 7:30 am with St. Nicholas Liturgy, lasting until noon. Then a procession goes to the cave beneath St Nicholas Church where the saint stayed when in Beit Jala. Later in the afternoon everyone goes to the Orthodox Club social hall for a concert given by local church choirs.
Beit Jala is 65% Christian, with 5,000 Greek Orthodox, 2,000 Catholics, and about 500 Lutherans. All of the Christians celebrate St. Nicholas dayk together on December 19. Beit Jala also has about 4,000 Muslims and many of them also take part in the festivities.
"This day has a great significance for the unity of the church," said Father Hijazen, noting that there are few other opportunities for joint celebrations in the area. "When we look at this festival we see everyone in the city goes to pray, and people don't care about Greek Orthodox or Catholic. We need this feast to help the people (remember Christian unity), and the people help us by reminding us that we have to be one. We hope to arrive someday to be one as Christians."
Many people, including Catholics, regularly comne to the Orthodox church to light a candle on the way to work, said Father Hijazen. People also tap three times on the church door, saying a prayer when they walk by the church; local tradition says St. Nicholas will grant these prayers. It is also said that a long time ago, during a drought, a woman would come by the church, knock on the door, and pray for rain. Finally, the story goes, St. Nicholas was tired of hearing her knock, granted her request, and rain came.
As nearly every Christian family has at least one person named Nicholas, the festival also includes name day celebrations at home with special meals and gifts honoring the saint's namesakes. It is a time for family reunions and, of course, gifts for children.
"We love St. Nicholas. He has special feelings in his heart for all the people of Beit Jala. All the people here wait for this day."
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Stories from Beit Jala
"A Visit to Beit Jala" by Jim Forest, In Communion
"West Bank villagers celebrate St. Nicholas as protector, miracle man," Catholic News Service, December 19, 2007
"West Bank town takes pride in links to St. Nicholas, celebrates Dec. 19," by Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service, December 15, 2014