Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ

Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ (Christmas Eve in Bethlehem), Norman Rockwell. Story illustration for Look, December 29, 1970


The Basilica of the Nativity, built from 527 to 565 AD, stands where it is claimed Jesus was born. On December 9, 1969, Norman Rockwell decided to go to Bethlehem to paint a Christmas scene. Two weeks later, accompanied by his wife Molly and his photographer, Brad Herzog, he flew to Jerusalem. On Christmas Eve, from the roof of a Bethlehem hotel, he gathered impressions for his painting and directed photography. He was particularly moved by the “sumptuous” presentation of the high priests, cardinals, and bishops as they proceeded to the Basilica. “The high priests carry large crucifixes and banners,” he said, “and wear white and scarlet robes, some of them with their red bishop’s caps. . . . It is indeed a tremendous spectacle and, although I am not a religious man, I was greatly impressed.”

Rockwell’s early version of the rooftop onlookers included “devout native Israeli, Christian, Jewish and Mohammedan.” The picture was a compromise between Rockwell and Look’s art director, who wanted him to omit the Arab and one soldier. But Rockwell kept both soldiers, “They never seem to go singly about the streets of Bethlehem,” he said. Another compromise was made when, at the art director’s request, he removed the tourist family’s souvenirs and guidebook from the painting. Look wanted Rockwell to do portraits of Prime Minister Golda Meir, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, and General Moshe Dayan during his five-day stay in Jerusalem. Rockwell met with Meir at her home and with Kollek. Dayan, however, would not meet with him. Rockwell later did a portrait of Mayor Kollek based on photos taken during the visit, but Look decided against the project and never published the portrait.


Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men and women of good will