When you search for ‘best places to spend Christmas,’ Israel is unlikely to top the list when it comes to string lights and snow.
Christmas isn’t marked in any particular way on a national scale and the majority of the country doesn’t celebrate. Only an estimated 2% of Israel’s population is Christian, with the other being approximately 74% Jewish, 18% Muslim and 1.6% Druze, as of 2019.
Yet, the Jewish state is still known by many as the most unique and meaningful spot in the world to spend the holiday season.
Here’s an inside look into what Christmas celebrations look like in different parts of the Holy Land:
Bethlehem and Nazareth
For starters, Israel is the birthplace of Christianity. Traditionally, Christian pilgrims have flocked to biblically significant sites in Israel and the West Bank to visit the spots where the Christmas story took place, including Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is home to the Church of the Nativity, which is known by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. Each year on Christmas Eve, Bethlehem’s main square, called Manger Square, fills with crowds singing Christmas carols and awaiting midnight mass services.
Nazareth is also revered by Christians as the hometown of Jesus, making it another remarkable spot for pilgrims to visit.
In advance of Christmas, Nazareth’s Christmas market is bustling. Locals decorate their homes for Christmas, throw street festivals and parties. It is one of the most festive celebrations in the country.
On Christmas eve, a Christmas parade makes its way through the city and midnight mass takes place at the Church of the Annunciation (the spot where Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced she was pregnant with Jesus, known as the ‘annunciation’).
In 2019, Israel welcomed a record-breaking one million Christian pilgrims, according to Haaretz, but that was the last group to touch ground for a Christmas pilgrimage in the holy land since the coronavirus outbreak.
This year, Christian pilgrims had high hopes that tourists might be able to return for Christmas festivities. However, coronavirus restrictions, due to the novel omicron variant, have once again barred visitors from entering Israel for the second consecutive Christmas season (which some people are not happy about).
The Old City of Jerusalem is another important stop for Christian pilgrims.
Around Christmas, the Old City’s Christian and Armenian quarters are sparkling with lights. Pilgrims make the processional walk through the Via Dolorosa, representing the path that Jesus would have taken on his way to crucifixion. Midnight mass and Christmas services are held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Jerusalem also offers a series of cultural events. The YMCA hosts a Christmas Bazaar filled with vendors offering handmade crafts, pastries and warm drinks. On Christmas eve, the YMCA hosts a Christmas carol concert with performances by dozens of singers and musicians including the Jerusalem Street Orchestra.
At the ‘New Gate’ of the Old City, which leads into the Christian quarter, a small Christmas market is held during the week leading up to Christmas. If you visit the market at the right time and look out for signs leading to Santa’s house, you may just bump into Santa Claus himself!
Issa Kassissieh, a former professional basketball player, doubles as Jerusalem’s official Santa. In fact, he’s probably the only Santa in the world that rides a camel instead of a sled pulled by reindeer.
You can visit Santa and tour his house on St. Peter Street in the Old City.
Aside from the customary, a number of new Christmas traditions and festivities have also developed across the country.
Every December, Haifa is decorated in honor of “the Holiday of all Holidays” to celebrate Israel’s three big religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Haifa is known for its coexistence between a mixed population of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bahais.
“The tradition began in December 1993, a year when three holidays – Chanukah, Christmas and Ramadan – happened to take place during the same month,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The main street of the German colony in Haifa is lined with lights and ends in a square with three symbols standing together: a towering Christmas tree, a Hanukkiah and a Crescent. From the right angle, you can see the Bahai Gardens and Golden Temple overlooking the main street.
Tel Aviv’s Christmas scene looks a little different.
Instead of spending December 24th at midnight mass, Tel Avivians might ring in the festivities at one of many clubs, like Duplex – the city’s biggest club, which holds an annual Christmas party featuring different themes on each of it’s 3 floors. (Santa hats not required but encouraged).
Jaffa also hosts an annual tree lighting, a Christmas parade and a market on weekends featuring holiday performances in Arabic.
Originally Published Dec 21 2021 09:05AM EST