If you read my earlier posts last couple of years, you must know that the Christmas season is a bit of a nostalgia moment for me. On one hand, I am living in the land that witnessed the beginning of it all (Israel). On the other hand, in time I have experienced that Christmas is not really Christmas when you live far away from family and friends.
But I try not to give in to seasonal depression, so after having searched for Christmas in Bethlehem the last couple of years, this year I decided to visit the town of Nazareth, which is where Mary and Joseph were from, and where Jesus supposedly spent his childhood.
Nazareth is about 100 km. from Tel Aviv, which makes it for a much easier day trip than Bethlehem. Plus I had not visited the city in four years, and never at Christmas Eve.
Upon arrival though, I was shocked to see this billboard ominously hanging at the entrance of Nazareth old city center:
Not such a welcoming sign, in a city which bears such a symbolic importance to Christianity. Apparently the banner has been put up by the Islamic Movement of Nazareth, in a unique display of lack of tolerance.
A bit disheartened, I proceeded to visit the main sites related to Christianity, the main one being the Church of the Annunciation. This is the largest (and possibly the ugliest) church in the Middle East. The facade is still nice to look at:
But the interior is a triumph of bare concrete:
Actually the church was conceived by an Italian architect, Giovanni Muzio, which came across as a surprise (less so when considering he is also the architect of a residential house in Milano, which residents call “Ca’Brutta”- the Ugly House).
One detail on the bronze cast door attracted my attention: a bas-relief scene of the nativity with a star of David, something you hardly see in Christian iconography
I noticed that the holy sites of Nazareth were actually full of groups of Jewish Israelis on guided tours, with guides sermonizing out about Christmas and the story of Jesus.
Unfortunately, the much awaited Christmas parade and fireworks had been anticipated on December 23rd, without giving notice, so many tourists were disappointed by the lack of public celebration (me on top). I was told the decision was taken because a storm was expected on December 24th, but the skies were puzzlingly crystal clear, with not even a cloud in sight.
As a consequence of this, we had a lot of free time before the lightning of the Christmas tree, which was spent shopping for food and spices, with the obligatory stop at El-Babour – The Mill of the Galilee, a large shop that opened more than a hundred years ago as a flour mill:
We also had a good lunch at the site of Mary’s fountain, the place where it is believed Mary was draining water every day. Of course, there was also time for a lot of sitting around with warm, spicy tea. The best one was to be found in a small cafe niched behind Mary’s Spring Square, and it is called “Mama Cafe”. Curiously, the full name of this place is “Mama Salt Room and Cafe”, because the very friendly owner has built a salt room in the back of the bar, which is actually a room covered in salt with medicinal properties. People with respiratory problems and other ailments, can spend some time inside, in a controlled environment, in order to alleviate symptoms. You can check his Facebook page:
At 7.30 pm, there was a spark of excitement when the doors of the Church of the Annunciation opened for the Christmas mass. People actually fought over at the entrance, in an odd not-so-Christmas spirit.
The mass was celebrated in a mix of several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and Latin. I admit it was pretty eerie to stand in a church and hear the priest thundering “Allah… Allah” (= Arabic for God), as the word bears, for a non-Arabic speaker, a heavy connotation to Islamic religion.
Many tourists in the last rows left their seats after some time, maybe realizing the boring nature of a Christian mass, but the beautiful organ music and the choir made me stay until the end, despite the tedious repetition of the liturgy in several languages.
I was surprised that in the seats reserved for the local Nazareth residence, attendance was pretty scarce. Apparently the local community of Christians has been dying out, which is not so surprising. A parallel decline in Christian population is taking place in Palestinian controlled centers like Bethlehem, where Christian are barely 10 to 15 % of the population. Overall, Christians are less than 4% in Palestinian controlled areas (1% in Gaza). Despite the pompous celebrations for Christmas, Christians in the territories are crashed between Israeli imposed barriers and the threats coming from little groups of extreme Islamic movements, so that many have preferred to emigrate abroad.
In an in-depth analysis though, the Jerusalem Post has stated that “shrinking of the Palestinian Christian community in the Holy Land came as a direct result of its middle-class standards” and not as a result of Muslim pressure. There have been many accidents of aggression towards Palestinian Christians, but the article points out that these could be generated less by religious hatred and more by the fact that Christians make for an easy targets.
However motivated, this trend could lead in the future to an absurd situation: that of Christian holy sites being devoid of Christians.
Will the Vatican sponsor European or African Christian settlers to fill in?