Bethlehem’s public Christmas events for 2023 are canceled.
The birthplace of Jesus dimmed is perhaps a symbol. The message from local officials: There’s less to celebrate this year.
People of a variety of backgrounds and across faith traditions who spoke with CBS News about the holidays shared the many different ways they observe the holiday season. They all reflected on a few themes: unity, family, faith and hope, even as many noted conflict and issues causing deep divisions in the U.S. and across the globe that are casting a cloud over the normally joyful season.
Renan Marinho, a pastor who most recently preached in Madison, Wisconsin, is focused on taking faith into 2024 as he prepares for Christmas celebrations at his new nondenominational Christian church in Florida.
“This holiday season, first of all, is having the manifestation of celebrating Jesus’ birth,” Marinho said.
“But the biggest reflection actually starts to happen when you go into New Year’s Eve, into the New Year — because this is the moment where Christians get into a sense of being able to bring into the new season God with them in their side.”
“Every aspect of my life this holiday is different,” said Shai Mizrahi Nessim. The 26-year-old artist wore a metal decal around her neck for this interview with “bring them back home” edged onto it.
“We never appreciated so much having Hanukkah, so we can have the opportunity to long for miracles to have our hostages back home.”
Nessim is keeping three things in mind during the holiday season: honoring her religion, creating unity and leading with empathy.
“It’s something that maybe I’m going to have it more present than always because we never know what people are going through. This has been a very rough year for everybody,” Nessim said.
“The Jewish Panamanian community, we stand strong with Israel, we stand strong with the IDF. We stand strong with all the families that are mourning around the world, and of innocent civilians, Palestinians too.”
On this global holiday, Ruben Garcia, draws parallels to the Nativity story, alluding to Mary and Joseph’s plight to find shelter before Jesus’ birth.
Now 75, Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, in El Paso, Texas, has helped immigrants since 1978.
“This time of Christmas, of the New Year, for them, it is an acknowledgment that God has allowed them to reach the border to arrive at the United States,” Garcia said.
Annunciation House will continue to arrange some rarities on Christmas for people crossing the border in search of a brighter future: A meal with chicken, gifts for the children and blankets for the adults.
“You can’t imagine how special that is for refugees who, as they cross through Mexico, oftentimes slept on the ground with literally nothing to cover themselves,” Garcia said.
“It can be very, very moving to receive a gift.”
Roza Tawil, a lawyer with roots in Chicago, is one of many who put gifts in stark perspective this year.
“The people in Gaza are gonna tell you, ‘My wish list is water,'” Tawil said. “My wish list is antibiotics, my wish list is food because they’re starving.”
Tawil, whose family is Palestinian and lives in the West Bank, says she feels like she lost a tooth – a hollow void she can’t stop rubbing her tongue over.
The unfathomable loss of property, life, memories — “It’s just, it’s so completely dystopian,” Tawil said.
“When you can’t see yourself in that person anymore, because their tragedy is just so extreme. It’s beyond recognition to you, you start to think of it as fiction almost, and you no longer resonate with them.”
Tawil’s family in the West Bank is Muslim and usually volunteers with the Christmas festivities in the Holy Land, as do Palestinians of different religions. There’s camaraderie among the Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem, she said — during Ramadan, Christians will wake up their Muslim neighbors to eat before sunup and the fast begins.
“You bring both together to create a full circle of what it really means to be in the holy place,” she said.
But this year, with public Christmas celebrations canceled because of the conflict in Gaza and in solidarity, they won’t be volunteering.
To many, unity during the holidays means connecting with family.
Seph MacAndrew, 26, was raised in a nondenominational church, but now honors Christmas traditions outside of religion, seeing as holy the holiday moments shared — laughter, watching movies together and distributing their father’s holiday tips from his job as a postal carrier, which the family calls “second Christmas.”
“We always look forward to that because everyone loves cash,” MacAndrew said.
It’s those little things that bring Christmas and the growing family together — MacAndrew has 11 nieces and nephews, and a sister who is pregnant — and “Every Christmas, that builds into the junk drawer of traditions that we have.”
Those kinds of small happenings can help people in the LGBTQ+ community move Christmas from a more capitalist, heteronormative, religious celebration to a more individually meaningful one, says MacAndrew, who identifies as queer.
“Renew and regroup what Christmas means to you,” McAndrew said about holiday traditions. “Which sounds so Hallmark and corny, but having that meaning for yourself individually, whether it’s new traditions or even just like, you know, finding new ways to celebrate.”
MacAndrew’s holiday celebrations keep changing, and in 2024, so will the tips: “My dad’s gonna be retiring next year.”
For Roni Mosakowski, this holiday will not be huge.
“I’m not physically with most of my family, whether it’s to distance or loss,” the New York resident told CBS News.
She will celebrate with her daughters, finding ways to incorporate their memories of her husband Sam, who died in 2015.
“We tend to make it special by acknowledging the people that aren’t there to decorate and celebrate with us,” Mosakowski said. “So we have ornaments with pictures of my late husband.”
Sammy, Mosakowski’s oldest daughter, takes the lead on memorializing her dad during the holidays. She still hangs his stocking, which is filled with new Christmas cards, in her bedroom.
“We’ve started to kind of add in things that are less painful for me,” her mother said. “Not as much of the old things that trigger my memories, but more of the new things that we now do to celebrate and incorporate him.”
New additions — and new traditions — remain constant for many during the holidays.
This year, Leela Harpur Heyder and Gunther Heyder became parents to now-7-month-old Zahara. On Christmas, they wanted to turn a gift into an experience and a memory, Harpur Hayder said.
“We’re basically taking a pause for the three of us to be together in a van and travel around New Zealand, North Island and South Island, getting out in nature as much as we can and just being together,” Harpur Heyder said.
The Heyders, together for 10 years, don’t want to grow old waiting for moments that make for lasting memories.
“The main focus of this trip is just to spend time with each other, be present and just hopefully surf away, catch some fish and hike some beautiful sceneries,” Heyder said.
And for many people, coming together for the holidays means around the table, over traditional foods. For Francisco Treviño, who runs a Hispanic cultural center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that’s tamales, buñuelos — sweet fried treats — and champurrado, a type of hot chocolate.
The holiday treats take him back to when he was a child in Mexico, he said — and are part of the traditions he’s trying to pass on to his community’s children, which include the posadas celebrations.
“We sit them down and explain to them why we do las posadas and of course, without missing the true significance of celebrating las posadas.”
Posadas celebrates Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem during December. The massive events ignite the holiday season for families across Latin America, which lasts through Jan. 6 for some, known as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes, the day of the three wise men, known as Los Tres Reyes Magos.
In Mexico, Spain and many other countries, families exchange presents then, commemorating the gifts given to Jesus in the Nativity story.
Bryan Rub, a real estate entrepreneur who recently made the transition back home to South Florida, provided an image of hope that encompassed so many of the wishes captured in these interviews.
Rub recounted with pride one night of Hanukkah this year, when his local Jewish community gathered to pray in unison and light the menorah, a tradition passed from parents to children for thousands and thousands of years.
Unity in prayer, even if Bethlehem is closed this year, is, for Rub and others in America, this year’s gift to cherish.
“You’re really challenged to, to push forward and stand firm in what you believe.”
“What are we really united around?” said Amilcar Shabazz.
Though he was raised in a Louisana Creole family that celebrated Christmas, Shabazz will instead celebrate Kwanzaa, the seven-day holiday dedicated to reflecting on the gifts of African culture. The first day’s gift, umoja, represents unity — and Shabazz, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is conscious of national unity and the fragility of democracy as we head into the 2024 elections.
“It’s therefore a time to really sift through all of that and look for the truth, look for the truth of our reality, the truth of the problems that beset us.”