A Perfect Christmas in the Holy Land

Let locals tell you about the festival at its source

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

An eastern European pilgrim walks away from the Armenian section of the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2011.

Forget, for a moment, notions of Christmas as a winter wonderland. Put out of your mind the jingling sleigh bells, rosy-cheeked Santas and sizzling log fires beloved of popular imagination. Instead, envisage Christmas in the Holy Land, which today stretches from Palestine’s West Bank to Israel to the Mediterranean. The region was the birthplace of Christmas some 2,000 years ago, and today the festival is a time of joyful pageants, convivial street markets and communities coming together in celebration.

Just one month ago, the conflict between Israel and Gaza threatened to spill into the wider region; the West Bank is still the target of Israeli settlement, and in the biblical cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem, relations between Christians and Muslims are sometimes tense. But now, in time for Christmas, peace reigns. If you’re planning a trip to the Holy Land this holiday season, get outdoors and join the throng. Make the most of the balmy weather to explore ancient ruins or hike across empty hills. And let these residents bid you welcome and be your guides.

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Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, Ramallah, Palestine
As President of the Palestinian people, I share in the annual Christmas celebrations—both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions. We were the first Arab state to consider these as official feasts to be shared by all our people, and we always invite Arab and foreign Christians to visit and make pilgrimages to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. We have agreements with many states to encourage pilgrimages to Palestine’s Christian holy sites.

I always try to eat with my family at Christmas, though there are often official lunches to attend in our headquarters, or other official occasions in the various Palestinian towns. And each year, I attend dinner and Mass in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Dec. 24.

Maoz Inon, hotelier and co-founder of the Jesus Trail, Nazareth, Israel
In the old city of Nazareth, Christmas is peak season for tourists. Many visitors come to enjoy the festivities, the streets are crowded, and there’s a great atmosphere. Locals celebrate with family and friends and join the parade between the Greek Orthodox and the Catholic churches on Dec. 24. There’s also a traditional Christmas market (Dec. 12 to 19), selling food and gifts, which has become very popular over the past few years.

Winter here is mild, with plenty of sunshine, so I like to get out of town to hike in the country. The Jesus Trail (jesustrail.com), which runs from Nazareth to Capernaum, connecting sites important to Christianity, is a great alternative way to experience the Christmas spirit. Nazareth is increasingly known for its restaurants and bars, and you can go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week and still not run out of fantastic places to eat.

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Vera Baboun, mayor of Bethlehem, Palestine
For me, like other Christians in the Holy Land, Christmas means a new birth, a new beginning. Bethlehem is the city of the Nativity and all citizens, Christians and Muslims alike, come together in a unique celebration. On Dec. 16 we light the Christmas tree in Manger Square, and on Dec. 24 we have the most beautiful festivities when the Latin Patriarch processes to the old Church of the Nativity accompanied by scout groups playing drums and bagpipes. Then there’s midnight Mass especially for the visitors, which is broadcast worldwide.

It’s important that tourists spend some time in and around Bethlehem, visiting famous sites such as the Grotto of the Nativity and Shepherds’ Fields in the neighboring village of Beit Sahour, with its 4th century cave-church. But to really experience Bethlehem’s Christmas spirit, you need to walk our streets and talk to our people.

Mariam Shahin, author of Palestine: A Traveller’s Guide, Ramallah, Palestine
As Muslims, Christianity is part of our culture, as was Judaism before the conflict. Christmas is a holiday for us. It marks the birthday of the prophet Jesus, revered by Muslims.

Ramallah is very lively at Christmastime, with street decorations and services in the Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Coptic churches. In fact, there are literally dozens of churches for anyone wishing to do the full tour, including a Quaker Meeting House. We also have a Christmas Bazaar in the Cultural Palace and, if it’s peaceful, concerts, plays and dance performances. There are even hip-hop events for those who find choirs boring.

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Many of Ramallah’s restaurants offer special Christmas menus. My favorite is the garden restaurant Zarour, tel: (970-2) 295 6767. For fancier folk, there’s the typically Levantine Darna (darna.ps). I also like Values (values.ps), which serves fabulous Gazan cuisine, and the artists’ eatery Ziryab, tel: (970-2) 295 9093. All sell alcohol.

Raed Saadeh, owner of the Jerusalem Hotel, East Jerusalem
There are three Christmases in Jerusalem—Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian—all celebrated on different dates. For me, Christmas is a symbol of a new dawn: both an end and a beginning, and a reflection on the successes and mishaps of the previous year.

Although Bethlehem is the main focus of Christmas, we in Jerusalem arrange Christmas activities too. On Dec. 24. many hotels and restaurants, such as my own (jrshotel.com), organize special lunches and dinners, and then we like to stay up to watch the midnight Mass from Bethlehem on TV.

But as well as these dedicated Christmas activities, I recommend tourists visit Sabastiya, where John the Baptist was beheaded, or take a hike in the hills around Jericho, near the Dead Sea. The climate there is especially pleasant this time of year, with rich vegetation, abundant birdlife and delicious citrus fruits.

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