The first Christmas I spent away from home turned out to be the best day of my life. Though not with family, I went to the next best place: Bethlehem.

I had been studying in Israel for five months and had been dreading this moment: How was I going to celebrate Christmas so far away from home, in a country that doesn't take the 25th of December as a national holiday?

I actually had an exam scheduled for Christmas Day, but I decided to risk a poor grade and hopped on a bus to Jerusalem on Christmas Eve.

The city was surprisingly calm. Most of the events were taking place in Manger Square in Bethlehem, a few kilometers beyond the thick concrete walls that divide Israel from the West Bank. My friends had plans to attend a Lutheran service that evening in the Old City - at the Church of the Redeemer, a stone's throw from the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the believed location of Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

It turned out that the service was a ticketed event, and my friend Kurt and I had not reserved seats ahead of time. Fortunately, through a little schmoozing with the Austrian receptionist (it helped that Kurt speaks German), we managed to squeeze our way down the corridor, past the garden, and into the enormous chapel. We sat down, exhausted (it was nearly midnight) and began singing Christmas carols. I immediately recognized the tunes, and though I could not sing in German, I hummed them quietly to myself, delighting in how small the world can seem in a sacred moment.

The service concluded at midnight; then the real adventure began. The pastor, a native German, announced that he would be leading his annual pilgrimage on foot to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Nativity, to the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. Though I had not planned on walking, the excitement of the event got the best of me. I exchanged my shoes with a friend who was staying in Jerusalem (the better to walk in) and off I went.

Our group was led by a violin player, the pastor, and the giant gold star he carried on a wooden post. Like wise men from the east, we journeyed by the light of a star, bearing the cold and the honks of curious drivers. Our procession was complicated by the lengthy process of passing Israeli border control, making the message of "peace on earth, good will to men," all the more poignant. Finally, we cleared, and entered Bethlehem.

Streets were decorated with red and gold Christmas lights and garland. In the center of Manger Square stood a Christmas tree and a large crèche. Behind it towered the Church of the Nativity, where services could still be heard. It was 4 a.m., and though I was on the other side of the world, I had just arrived home.

Melanie Stanek is back in the United States.
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