Christmas in the Holy Land is probably not quite what you’d expect. As this is the birthplace of Jesus, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there would be some real razzmatazz, and just perhaps the finest humdinger of a Christmas party. You might be in for a disappointment…
Take a walk through the streets of Israel during December and you might just get the feeling that something’s amiss. OK, this is the land of the Jews and God’s Chosen People don’t celebrate Christmas (though do have a holiday, Hanukkah, that usually ends up being celebrated at around the same time as Christmas), but there’s something strangely eerie about playing hunt the Christmas bauble in a packed shopping centre in December. And as for Santa’s grotto, sorry, it just isn’t going to happen.
There are only some 140,000 Christians out of a total population of some 7 million. So no public or legal holiday, and Christmas in Israel is, in fact, a normal working day (if it doesn’t fall on the weekend). That’s right, as most of the world rejoices on Dec 24/25, Israelis slave over a hot desk/computer/whatever…
So what’s a Christmas loving Christian got to do to get his hands on a bit of tinsel? Well, for spiritual reasons, your Christmas in Israel checklist has to include Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Yes, take the trip over to Bethlehem (you can get special taxis and buses - bus number 22 leaves from the Damascus Gate bus station in nearby Jerusalem), sing some Christmas carols in Manger Square and visit the Church of the Nativity.
This is, so they say, where the stable stood where Jesus was born and the contrast with the commercialism of Christmas back home makes it all the more special. Next to the altar, down a winding staircase of marble, is the cave where Jesus was born. A silver star on the floor marks the spot where he was born, and yes, it’s quite moving to see, even for the more skeptical among us. This cave is open daily 8am-7pm and admission is free.
Whatever your denomination, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve as there are multiple services and processions, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Armenian and more. Check out our FULL guide to the Christmas services in Bethlehem. I’m not sure if they still do it, but you also used to be able to get a special Christmas stamp in your passport from the Post Office next to Manger Square. I remember being quite chuffed getting this stamp, only to lose my passport a few months later…
Seeing Bethlehem at Christmas is probably best accomplished through tour operators, most of whom will be glad to assist you. We’ll leave it to you to decide who to pick. Just bear in mind that going it alone is possible, and you could even drive there, but you’ll have to negotiate security checkpoints and gruff security personnel on both sides who will probably be short on the old Christmas spirit (personal experience speaking here).
So, to really enjoy your Christmas in Israel it will probably be a whole lot easier to go through a tour operator. At the very least, get on an organized bus that will get you to Bethlehem; you can always do your own thing once safely there.
Also worth visiting over Christmas is Nazareth, another Christian-Arab town, if only for the blow-up Santa dolls adorning the windows of many a shop. Here you can buy the finest artificial trees in Israel. “Buy your Jesus of Nazareth imitation tree here!” Er, OK. There is also now an annual Christmas Market in Nazareth, well worth checking out for some seasonal fun!
Elsewhere, you could always check out the services around the Sea of Galilee. The St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, built in the shape of a fishing boat is perhaps the oldest building in Tiberias at 900 years old. Services are usually led by Father James and are small in size, similar to others held in small but theologically important churches around the Galilee.
If you’re looking for Christmas decorations in Tel Aviv, head downtown (around the Central Bus Station), demand there seems to be growing what with the growing numbers of foreign workers living in that part of town.
And if you plan on staying in Tel Aviv/Jerusalem/wherever over Christmas, you can always check out the Midnight Mass in Jaffa before heading to somewhere like the MASH Bar, or Mike’s Place for a bit of a shindig. Not sure you’ll find any mistletoe for a quick Christmas peck, but there’ll be plenty of happy people to make your Christmas night in the Holy Land one to remember.
If you don’t make it to Bethlehem or one of the places mentioned, there are always pockets of expats who celebrate Christmas in Israel in their own way. It’s not quite the same as back home, but for a few hours at least, you should be able to get reasonably festive.
Wherever you end up, we hope you have a fantastic Christmas in the Holy Land!