On the eve of the 1,980th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the little town where it happened hardly lay in the deep and dreamless sleep described in the traditional carol. Rather, it was cacophonous with a restive world, out of harmony with the soft and natural sounds that normally attend the gracefully rolling Judean hills around here.
Gone, for the time being, were the sounds of the crowing roosters and braying donkeys that in other times rise gently from the twin hills on which bethlehem rests. Muted, also, was the wind-softened wail of muezzins from the minarets of distant mosques calling the believers of Islam to prayer, and the ringing church bells in this Christian town summoning the believers of Christ.
They were drowned out this Christmastime by the sounds of 20th-century commercialism and the noises of hostility between quarreling nations.
Beatles' music blared loudly from a shop whose owner knows what the death of a folk-hero does to the record charts; Christmas carols rang out from oriental restaurants whose facades were draped in gaudy tinsel and sprayed with silvery "Merry X-mas" messages; tourist stores displayed crowns of thorns and bottles of "Holy Land air" and a diesel generator with cables running to an enormous mobile television studio chugged incessantly.
Olive-drab jeeps and trucks of the Israeli Army ground their way in and out of Manger Square, bringing even more soldiers into a town that overnight has been turned into an armed camp. Army field radios crackled with orders in Hebrew and young Arab schoolboys helped Israeli border policemen drag heavy crowd-control fences across the broad plaza on front of the Church of the Nativity.
The Army leaves nothing to chance on Christmas Eve in Manger Square. Visitors were stopped at the entrance and body-searched in curtained cubicles before being admitted to the gaily decorated town center. Cars were diverted six miles away -- just outside Jerusalem -- and ticket-bearing pilgrims were brought here by bus.
Troops in full battle gear, carrying M16 automatic rifles and snub-nosed Uzi submachine guns, fanned out across the town, positioning themselves on rooftops and wherever else a potential terrorist might stalk.
It says something about the curious blend of cultures in the Holy Land that Bethlehem at Christmas is rife with Druze snipers paid by a Jewish army to protect Christian pilgrims from Moslem terrorists.
Elias Freij, Bethlehem's Christian Palestinian mayor, sat in the St. George Restaurant overlooking Manger Square and talked about Christmas in his town. It is his ninth Christmas as mayor, and his unhappiest, he said.
There has been a lot of trouble this year in Bethlehem -- part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank -- and Freij said the mood of the Arabs is gloomy. Protesting Palestinian students at Bethlehem University were shot in the legs last month by Israeli troops, and last summer after two other West Bank mayors were crippled in assassination attempts, Frij briefly resigned in protest and then returned to office.
Christmas normally is a big event in Freij's life. World attention focuses on Bethlehem. The music of hundreds of choir singers is beamed from here around the world, and the mayor reads his annual Christmas message to thousands of pilgrims gathered in Manger Square.
But not this year.
"I'm not going to give any Christmas message this year. There is none to give. The situation is too gloomy," said Freij. "If you were in my place, what would you say? That I hope we have peace? Hope is one thing, reality is another, and I don't want to use Christmas as an event to complain."
Freij resents the gun-toting Israeli soldiers who seem to be everywhere, and he rejects the contention by Army officials that the only reason Bethlehem has not had a terrorist tragedy at Christmas is because of the heavy military presence.
"I guarantee against my name that no Arab would do anything to mar this event. Arabs, Christian and Moslem, regard this as a sacred event," he said.
In spite of it all, the discordant notes of Christmas in Bethlehem that Freij laments -- the clattering of weapons being unloaded from Army trucks, the shrill dunning of the hucksters of tourist souvenirs -- failed to reach one place in the little town.
Deep beneath the nave of the ancient Church of the Nativity, in the grotto where Christians believe the Messiah was born, a busload of American pilgrims knelt before a white-frocked Roman Catholic priest.
"Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world," they prayed in soft voices.
Here, at least, there was peace at Christmas.