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."
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.
As nearly every 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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