Alan Mills – Christmas in Bethlehem

Conscription – Palestine – Christmas in Bethlehem

If I can just take you back to our arrival in Palestine; After a somewhat arduous six weeks journey by train, road and sea, we were initially placed at Mount Scopus training college in Jerusalem.

We’d arrived on 22nd December and were still a little bit weary when we awoke on Christmas Eve morning to a cacophony of church bells. It was and still is the most beautiful sound I have ever heard, some had high pitches, some low bass tones, some with a pleading hurried tone, as if it was calling the faithful to worship. They came from every direction, we all ran to the window and soon there were sixteen grown men in their vests and undies listening in awe, I’d heard church bells in Yorkshire before but nothing like this. I felt blessed.

The previous day, we’d been asked if we’d like to volunteer for traffic duty in Bethlehem over Christmas and about twenty of us agreed to go, personally I just thought it would be interesting to spend Christmas in Bethlehem.

We travelled by truck and arrived mid afternoon. It was very quiet but a Sergeant told us it wouldn’t be quiet for long. He quickly showed us around, where our point duty was, gave us our instructions and he also pointed out a few of the sites. Bethlehem was a small town, about the size of Otley and the focal point for all of the Christmas celebrations was the main square – Manger Square- which was crowned by a giant Christmas tree. It’s the traditional spot where locals and pilgrims sing Christmas carols before the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity.

By late afternoon the streets were starting to fill up. I was astounded at the amount of British servicemen and women there, all in uniform, it was like a parade. By six o’clock it was so busy there was no need for traffic duty, it wouldn’t have been possible to fit a bike down the streets, let alone a car, so we were just told to stand there, take it all in and look important. I’m not particularly religious but there was a special atmosphere in a special place that night, one of faith and optimism, it was unforgettable. The crowning point of the evening was the hymns when the singing of the British service men and women would have put a Welsh male voice choir to shame.

My second Christmas was spent in Haifa. As a place of much less religious significance, it was much more low key. We all chipped in for a few beers and a fuddle on Christmas Eve and the canteen served up a half decent Christmas dinner. But for most of Haifa it was a normal day and I awoke feeling worse for wear with an eight hour shift in front of me. But even in the Arab quarter, everywhere seemed quiet, almost like there was a reverence for Christmas even though it wasn’t celebrated by them. Despite alcohol being frowned upon by the Muslim community, one by one, various stall and cafe owners began to call me in their premises and offering me a whisky while wishing me happy Christmas. As the end of my shift approached, I began to accept, convincing myself it was an ideal way to gain trust and build bridges. I’m not sure I can remember the end of my shift or how I got back to the police station, I’ve a vague recollection of having a couple of beers with the lads before sloping off to bed to be awoken by a cacophony of bells, Haifas gesture of respect for Christmas, although this time, with a thumping headache, they didn’t sound quite as beautiful.

Alan Mills, Palestine Police

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