Let's settle one issue first. I am well aware that for most of the world's Christians, Christmas is celebrated on the 25th day of December. The season then continues for the next 12 days, but that's another story (as the one and only M.Z. Hemingway reminds us).
However, there are millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians located in strategic places -- think Egypt, Russia, the Slavic countries -- who celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. Click here to see a helpful map at The Telegraph offering the details. (Clarification from a reader: Most parishes in Greece now use the 25th of December, but there are old-calendar parishes there, too. The map is inaccurate on that point.)
Why is this? Well churches in the West use the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582. Most of the world's Orthodox churches remain on the Julian calendar, which dates back to 45 B.C. (It does confuse things a bit that, in the United States, most Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 -- but stay on the old calendar for Pascha, which is the Orthodox name for Easter).
I needed to remind readers about these basic facts -- which are known to all experienced religion-beat writers -- because this is the time when news organizations start covering one of the season's basic stories, which is the sad state of Christmas in the city of Bethlehem itself, located on the tense West Bank.
The headline on the Washington Post piece is typical: "Violence makes for a somber Christmas in Bethlehem this year." Tragically, you could use that headline almost every year and it would be accurate.
The story gets the politics of this story right, of course. The problem -- surprise -- is that key religious facts are missing or are messed up. Here is how the story starts out:
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus is usually filled with parades and parties this time of year. There are fireworks, carolers, feasts. Revelers drink a little wine. They dance.
This year? It’s not exactly like Christmas was canceled, but it is a somber, dutiful affair.