The production of religious articles and souvenirs from olive wood is not only traditional in Beit Sahour but the products are also internationally known. It is believed that the craft first began in the fourth century, following the construction of the Church of the Nativity, at which time the monks taught the craft to the local residents. The origins of this craft are obscure, but one of the earliest products was rosary beads carved from olive pits. Because of the religious associations with the olive tree and the availability of supplies of wood, woodcarving has always been very popular in this region. The craft is one of the few professions to still be passed down through generations. Olive wood carving is one of the most important touristic crafts remaining in Beit Sahour and we are fortunate to still have a number of superb, local artists continuing in this tradition.
Woodcarving is the process of shaping wood into decorative and sculptural forms. Olive wood is used because it can be worked readily and accurately with simple hand tools. Also, it has a unique variety of natural colour and tonal depth, due to the annular structure. It is also resistant to decay and receptive to a number of surfacing treatments. Rough cutting is usually carried out on machines programmed with the master design model. The finest, more detailed work – incorporating facial expressions and intricate details – must be chiseled by hand. After sanding, each item is machine buffed with special cloths infused with beeswax. This is the only finish they require. Varnish is avoided because it would eventually cause the olive wood to crack.
Over one thousand different gift items are made of olive wood including boxes, picture frames, covers for antique books, candleholders, rosaries, urns, vases and Christmas ornaments. Olive wood is even crafted into full nativity scenes with individual figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the three wise men, the shepherds and even cows and sheep. Often these scenes are enclosed in an open-sided stable surrounded by palm trees, with a shooting star hovering above them.
Beit Sahour has an abundance of private workshops that design and produce these artistic olive wood treasures, all professionally handmade by local craftsmen who have inherited the skills down through the generations.