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U3A Writing: O Come All Ye Faithful

...Beneath a cloudless star-filled sky several hundred worshippers, each with a lighted taper in one hand and a hymn sheet in the other, faced a candle-lit altar, and moments later to the words of 'O Come all ye Faithful' St. George's Cathedral Choir led in the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem and his retinue.

As the last notes of the first carol died away, the Great Bell of Bethlehem sent its message booming across the world: Jesus Christ is born....

Tom Swallow tells of being in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, 1939.

The door suddenly burst open and in strode our orporal, 'Busty' Hammond. "Stand to your beds," he bawled. "And be quick about it!"

With only six weeks' service to our credit we didn't wait to argue; we sprang to obey.

"Oh Hell! Not a fatigue party this time o'night," muttered my pal Charlie Avery, who had already made his bed and was about to climb into it. "I thought we were supposed to be off duty. After all, it is Christmas."

"Cut the cackle, and move," yelled Busty as he strode to the centre of the hut and stood for a moment enjoying the commotion he had caused. "Any of you lot religious?" he asked.

No one answered; it was obvious the Padre wanted volunteers to prepare the Chapel for the morrow, Christmas Day 1939. Instead of the expected "You, you and you get dressed in fatigues and be outside in ten minutes", a quieter Busty continued. "Anyone like to go to Bethlehem, tonight?"

"Yes Corporal," I blurted out, "I would."

"Have you got a quid towards the taxi fare?"

I had only that morning received my first letter from home and in it a crisp, new, 1 note for a 'Special Christmas Treat', but I unblushingly replied "No Corporal, I've only got ten bob."

"Well if you can get another five at a pound a time, you can come for half price."

Half an hour later we were at Sarafand Camp's Jerusalem Gate exit and the MP was scrutinising our passes. "What's all this NYA stuff?" he wanted to know.

I explained that we had left the UK within a few days of enlisting, without training or numbers and the NYA meant 'Numbers not yet allotted'.

"Soldiers without numbers? How the hell can we expect to beat Hitler if half the Army's got no numbers? Where to do you think you are going anyhow?"

"Bethlehem, Corporal", I replied.

"What arms are you carrying?"

Our civilian driver displayed a Mauser pistol and Busty his service revolver.

"Not enough!" said the Redcap, "I daren't let you out."

Very disappointed, we turned back but Busty ordered our driver to take us to another exit, Jaffa Gate, where we let it be known we were only going to nearby Tel Aviv. Once clear of the camp we turned towards Jerusalem.

We, the new boys, were leaving Sarafand Camp for the first time and were looking forward to the journey, but because of the 'Palestinian Troubles' that were still rumbling on, our driver switched off all his lights.

"It's just a precaution," volunteered Busty, "There's still a bit of sniping going on."

"Now he tells us," Charlie whispered in my ear.

We were alone on the road until we caught up with another car, and our driver accelerated to pass it.

"Duck! Get down, Quick!" Busty whispered and we obeyed as one man, but not before I had recognised the other car as belonging to 2/Lt. Franz Workman, whose signature was on our passes.

"That was Workman!" I said.

"Can't be," said Charlie. "He's back in barracks; he only signed our passes a few minutes ago."

"I'm telling you that was Workman, I recognised the car."

If that was Lieut. Workman ahead of us, how could he have signed our passes? He couldn't! He hadn't! Busty had forged his signature!

"Ah, dinna fret," said Busty. "He was on his own and probably dead scared. His father's OC RAF Ramleh, and if he's going home for Christmas at least we know where he is."

I wondered what was the worst that could happen to new numberless recruits absent without leave, on an illegal journey, carrying forged passes and with no means of self-defence in the event of trouble.

But peace and goodwill were abroad and, after an exhilarating drive through the Hills of Judea, we finally halted outside Jerusalem YMCA just as the bells in the tower rang out their Christmas message: 'O come all ye Faithful'. We paused to listen for a few minutes, but The King David Hotel, Army HQ, was just across the road and teeming with officers and red-caps, not a healthy place for us that night, so we drove on and joined the queue of cars heading for Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity.

In Bethlehem itself, street vendors offered freshly squeezed orange juice, appetising lamb shish-kebabs, souvenir candles, mother-of-pearl decorated crosses and other 'holy' souvenirs that we were assured had been "Blessed by the priest, Sir."

Persistent street urchins pleaded, "Backsheesh, mister, backsheesh. Anna m'skeen, mafish felouce." (I am very poor. I have no money) their cupped hands held out hopefully. But they disappeared as if by magic when a black-fezzed local bobby appeared.

"Keep your hands on your money," he said, "there'll be plenty of klifty wallahs about tonight" and indeed the crowded conditions seemed ideal for pickpockets.

With its forty foot high stone outer walls, the Church of Nativity (325 AD) looked more like a fortress than a place of worship, and one had to bend to enter through the marauder-proof door. Inside, the sound of services in many tongues merged with the smoke from countless candles and incense burners to fill the church with a pungent murmuring, and a voice in the shadows directed us to an outside courtyard and an unforgettable Christmas scene.

Beneath a cloudless star-filled sky several hundred worshippers, each with a lighted taper in one hand and a hymn sheet in the other, faced a candle-lit altar, and moments later to the words of 'O Come all ye Faithful' St. George's Cathedral Choir led in the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem and his retinue.

As the last notes of the first carol died away, the Great Bell of Bethlehem sent its message booming across the world: Jesus Christ is born. And the good tidings were taken up by the numerous bells of Bethlehem, and heard, thanks to the magic of wireless, in England, where I knew my family would be listening.

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