Latin Christmas

Entrance of the Custos First Sunday of Advent

Unluckily the pages of Aetheria’s day book (end of the 4th cent.) concern¬ing Christmas and Epiphany ceremonies in Bethlehem have been lost. The most ancient information is to be found in the Armenian Lectionary of the 5th cent., which says that the liturgical year began on 6 January with the feast of the Epiphany or birth of our Lord.

Then we have the Jerusalem Canon Book (middle of the 8th cent.), a manuscript found early in 1900’s in the church of St. George at Lahil, Caucasus. It is the translation of an ancient Greek ritual and, integrated with another Georgian document found in the Paris National Library, it forms a valuable source of data for the history of Holy Places during the Arab period, from 635 to the destructions of el Hakim in 1009.

Regarding Christmas ceremonies we come to know that on the eve, after sext, clergy and assembly went in procession to the Shepherds’ Field. Coming back to Bethlehem, they visited the Nativity grotto and finished chanting vespers.

At midnight they started reading prayers and lessons. This Canon Book designated Christmas as on 25 December; in fact by the end of the 6th cent. the Church of Jerusalem also complied with the practice established in Rome, that had set Christmas on such a date.

The sixth of January was devoted to the Epiphany or manifestation of Jesus at the Jordan river.

No particular rites are recorded for the Crusades’ time. In any case it is known that the Patriarch of Jerusalem went to Bethlehem on Christmas eve in order to lead the liturgy. Thus we see that from the 6th cent. up to the present, the Christmas liturgy has retained in Bethlehem its fundamental features. Until 1848 (the year in which pope Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriar¬chate of Jerusalem) the Christmas liturgy in Bethlehem was officiated by the Father Custos of the Holy Land.

Since 1848 the Patriarch presides at the Christmas ceremonies while the Father Custos still leads the Epiphany rites.


Holy Child of Bethlehem

On the 24th of December, the parish priest, the town authorities and personalities go to meet the Patriarch of Jerusalem, welcoming him near Rachel’s tomb. In a cortege they go to Bethlehem escorted by horsemounted guards.

At 1 P.M. all the Franciscans, the Seminarians of the Latin Patriarchate and the priests who can take part (all of them in liturgical vestments) receive the Patriarch at the entrance of the parvis while the Father Guardian of the convent waits in front of the basilica door.

The Patriarch crosses the parvis with the town authorities on his right (Governor, Mayor, Garrison Commander, etc.) and clergymen disposed according to their rank on his left. At the basilica entrance, following the prescribed ceremonial, the Patriarch is welcomed by the Father Guardian and then he takes leave of the town authorities and enters the basilica followed by the clergy. He immediately passes through the small door on the left, crosses St. Jerome’s Cloister and enters St. Catherine’s where he puts on the sacred vestments and begins chanting the solemn first vespers of Christmas.

At 3.30 P.M., compline and daily procession, solemnly presided over by the Father Guardian of the convent, take place.

In St. Catherine’s at 11 P.M. solemn matins are sung, officiated over by the Patriarch. Shortly before midnight the Patriarch begins chanting the Pontifical Mass; the Governor, Mayor, Garrison Commander and consuls who have the right to participate, attend this mass. When the Pontifical Mass is over, a procession starts. The Patriarch holds in his arms the well known image of the Child Jesus. He is preceded by the clergy and followed by the town authorities, consuls and congregation. After circling the cloister they enter the basilica through the door in the northern apse and go down to the grotto.

Once in the grotto the Patriarch lays the image of the Child on the silver star and the deacon chants the Gospel of the Nativity. When he reaches the woids:”... she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger”, he stops, wraps the image with clothes and takes it to the manger. Then the deacon resumes chanting the Gospels; at the end the antiphons and appropriate prayers are sung. Then the Patriarch incenses the image of the Child, intones the Te Deum and the procession goes back to St. Catherine’s where the Christians Eve liturgy comes to an end. The image of the Child remains in the Manger till. the 4th of January.

At midnight sharp the Latins begin celebrating masses in the grotto until 5 A.M. There are only two interruptions, one during the ceremony officiated by the Patriarch, the other from 5 A.M. to 6.30 A.M. during which time Greek Orthodox celebrate their liturgy. Then masses are said continuously until 5 P.M. Further¬more at 9 A.M. in St. Catherine’s an auxiliary bishop officiates at a pontifical mass. At 4 P.M. the Franciscan community makes a pilgrimage to the Shepherds’ Field. They stop first at the site venerated by the Greek Orthodox and then go to the Shepherd’s Field of the Latin property.


Christmas in Bethlehem

  • 1.30 pm - Entrance and Vespers
  • 4.00 pm – Procession
  • 11.30 pm - Office of the Hours
  • 00.00 am - Mass of Christmas
  • 1.45 am - Procession to Grotto of Nativity



Procession to the Grotto of the Nativity

On Epiphany Eve at 10.30 A.M. the Father Custos of the Holy Land enters the basilica with a ceremony very similar to the one followed for the reception of the Patriarch. On the parvis he is welcomed by fathers and priests who do not wear liturgical vestments.

In St. Jerome’s cloister he is received by the Father Guardian of the convent, intones the Te Deum and enters the church followed by all.

At 1.40 P.M. pontifical vespers begin officiated over by the Father Custos of the Holy Land; the daily procession starts for the Nativity grotto at the beginning of the chanting of the Magnificat.

At 3.30 P.M. solemn matins are sung, officiated over by the Father Guardian of the convent. Then chanting the Te Deum, procession goes to the grotto; the three altars are incensed as during vespers.

From midnight until 9 A.M. of 6 January, the Latins have the right to celebrate masses continuously in the grotto with a short interruption during which Greek and Armenian Orthodox have their liturgy.

At 9 A.M. in St. Catherine’s the pontifical mass is sung with the Father Custos of the Holy Land officiating, at which attend the town authorities and consuls, the same as during Midnight mass.

At 3.30 P.M. vespers, compline and matins are sung.

Around 4 P.M., the solemn procession takes place with the Father Custos of the Holy Land officiating. The image of the Child is no longer the one used for the Christmas rites; this one represents the Child seated on a throne. When the procession is over the Father Custos blesses the assembly with the image.

The ceremonies of the Latin Christmas in Bethlehem are thus completed. Perhaps it is not out of place to mention that Latin priests have the privilege to say every day (with the exception of a few liturgical feasts) the Christmas votive mass in the Nativity grotto, and the St. Joseph’s votive mass and St. Joseph Artisan’s votive mass in St. Jerome’s grottos. This privilege has been reconfirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1964, in memory of his visit to the Holy Land.

Unforgettable is the pilgrimage of Paul VI, the first pope who came to Bethlehem. On 6th January, Epiphany day, he celebrated a mass at the Wise Men’s altar and then delivered his famous message of peace. As souvenirs of his visit, Paul VI offered to the Child a symbolic present: gold (represented by a golden rose), incense (represented by a 18th cent. silver censer) and myrrh (contained in a kind of pyx). Moreover he donated to the church the vestments worn by him during the mass, and the chalice, missal and all the other sacred vessels used during the rite.


Epiphany in Bethlehem


  • 10.00am - Solemn Mass of Fr Custodian S. Catherine
  • 3.30pm - Second Vespers and Solemn Procession to the Grotto of the Nativity


Other Celebrations

December 28:  Holy Innocents

January 1: Mary Mother of God (at the Milk Grotto)

September 30:  St. Jerome

November 24: St. Catherine

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