The olive tree is an ancient cultivated plant which is grown in all Mediterranean countries and highly appreciated. There are numerous myths associated with this tree. The Arameans, who lived in the 'fertile crescent' (the area between Syria and Mesopotamia) regarded it as the 'blessed tree'. The Canaanites, the Phoenicians and other cultures cultivated the olive tree in widespread areas of the Holy Land. The ancient Greeks already considered the olive tree a symbol of spiritual power, purification, fertility and vitality. Christianity regards the olive tree and its branches as signs of hope and reconciliation with God (The dove sent out form Noah's Ark returns with an olive branch in its beak).
The hard wood of the olive tree has a distinctive character. Old olive trees, which often grow on arid soil, are deeply fissured like rocks, yet they may have been bearing fruit year by year for centuries. These survival artists produce wonderful carving wood. The expressive grain of the core wood and the brighter, more homogenous sapwood present the woodcarver with an intriguing material for their craft. It is also worth knowing that an olive tree is left to grow for 150 years before its branches may be harvested for carving. The wood is cut in new moon nights and needs to be stored and dried afterwards to make sure that no fissures occur during further processing.
In Bethlehem, Palestine, nativity scenes have been carved from the wood of olive trees for generations, following ancient traditional patterns.
Christmas tree decorations and wooden ornaments are sawn from olive tree wood, waxed and polished. The origins of the woodcraft industry in Bethlehem have not been handed down precisely. Various sources tell of skilled and talented monks who handed down their knowledge to the inhabitants of Bethlehem.
Rosary beads carved from olive seeds were probably among the first products of this industry.
Over centuries, numerous wood carving workshops were established in the Christian communities. In those family businesses in Bethlehem and the neighbouring communities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the knowledge and skills of wood carving have been preserved and handed down to subsequent generations to this day.