I suspect there might be a little confusion around the subject of Christmas in Israel.
If names like Bethlehem and Nazareth are highly evocative for the many Christians around the world, a tourist coming to Israel hoping to find an enhanced version of Christmas celebrations will be inevitably disappointed. Christmas day is just another working day in Israel, where people carry on their business as usual. You won’t find lights decorations in the street, there are no Christmas markets and, definitely, no snow.
Maybe the place with the less Christmas atmosphere in Israel is Tel Aviv, with its secular nonchalance and only a small numbers of churches, located mainly in Jaffa. However, in Jerusalem you will find many churches are opening their doors for mass services and singing, providing the right atmosphere for a spiritual uplifting experience. For those, like me, chasing down the Spirit of Christmas, I would say a trip to Bethlehem is mandatory. The birthplace of Jesus attracts as much as 2 millions visitors a year. Unfortunately, since the town of Bethlehem is often included in day-trip programs from Jerusalem, visitors end up spending little time – and currency – in the Palestinian Territory. Nevertheless, the independent traveler will appreciate an improved mobility during Christmas, with the checkpoint open 24 hours a day and even free transportation available from Jerusalem on Dec. 24 and 25.
The holy sites are home to many celebrations, the most famous of all being the midnight mass, for which advanced booking is essential. It is a sort of VIP event, with politicians and security guards, so don’t think that you can just show up. Anyway, the mass is heavily broadcasted around the world, and you can even see it live on Ipraytv.com, which promises to “connect with the Holy Spirit from the center of the universe live from Jerusalem and the Holy sites via live video streaming“.
Nazareth, where Christ namely spent his childhood, is also an interesting place for a visit around Christmas time. The city comes alive with a Christmas parade, special fireworks and the traditional display of gifts in the city shops. Haifa is also a good destination because of its high percentage of Arab Christians residents. The “Festival of Festivals” in Wadi Nisnas was bringing together a multicultural crowd over three consecutive weekends in December, its mission being to “advance and foster tolerance by holding cultural and arts activities marking the holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas and Eid Al-Adha that occurs simultaneously during this time of the year“. It offered a good insight into the prevailing peaceful relationships between the different credos.
But what about Israelis? How do they really feel about Christmas?
Like in any country, also in Israel you will have the mainstream religion dictating its likes and dislikes: Christmas is definitely not interesting for Jewish believers, who do not recognize Jesus as a messiah. Don’t take me wrong: Jews do not hate Christmas, like the cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol. They are just, well, not interested. Only a small numbers of extremists will be truly irritated by the sight of Christmas traditions which are – you will have got it by now – minoritarian in Israel.
I must say I was a bit perplexed though, when I read that following customers complains, the clothes company Zara removed Christmas trees from the shopwindow, replacing them with more politically correct menorahs. The same outraged customers probably will be among the ones who enthusiastically hopped on a plain this year to take advantage of the special fly & shop travel deals to Europe, where notoriously Christmas and Shopping have become one, holy entity.
On a personal level, I have come across many open-minded people who hold moderate views and look at Christmas with curiosity and respect. It is even becoming fashionable: Israelis reportedly flocked to churches last night to get a glimpse of the special midnight mass and Christmas recitals. Here is the comment of an Israeli visitor (from Ynet):
|I was at a monastery in Ein Kerem to hear midnight mass – I sat among Catholics, Arabs, Christians AND Jews. It’s a lovely experience. One of the nuns there asked me if I’m Catholic, I said No, I’m a Jew – she said: ‘this is the way it should be’ Brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful lady.|
This year, I was busy at my house hosting a Christmas party. It was an interesting experience to see guests carefully bringing gifts to place under the tree and happily joining the round of caroling. We performed a particular hilarious interpretation of “The twelve days of Christmas“, where people were assigned a different voice in the chorus. “Why do you celebrate Christmas after all?” – a friend asked me, displaying an unexpected amount of religious ignorance. “You don’t know? It is a celebration for the birth of Jesus“. We took another round of spumante, to hail at the cultural differences that makes us all so specials.
ps. for those who have the patience, I suggest reading this beautiful account of Christmas in Israel by Jewish writer Samantha S. Shapiro