Bethlehem has some great hotels. The Intercontinental is a fantastic old place, fronted with beautiful stones and containing a bar and pool room in a cavernous, lime basement. When I stayed there last year it was living up to its name: people from all continents gathered at meal times, piling plates from the buffet with falafel, curry, cured meats and chips.
But Bethlehem didn’t used to have any hotels. Historically, around the time of Jesus’ birth, it simply didn’t need them. You can walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in a couple of hours, and south of Bethlehem is you are getting into desert. So no traveller would need to rest there. Jerusalem had everything you would need.
Mary and Joseph went there to register for the census. It was Joseph’s family’s town. There were no hotels or inns, and anyway – he had extended family there. Surely he would stay with them? Yet in schools across the country we see towel-headed boys and cushion-stuffed girls stepping across the stage, knocking and being told by various innkeepers that there is no room, until one beckons them into his stable…
The truth appears to be more complex. Perhaps being passed from relative to relative, family to family, the disgraced young couple were eventually taken in as she went into labour. The cave upon which the Church of the Nativity is built – pretty well atested since very very early in Christian history – is typical of the place animals would be taken for protection in the night. The holy family were protected, but not welcomed. Kept at arms length, but never completely rejected.
Perhaps they still are.