With only eleven more days to Christmas, curiosity captured me with “Is Christmas celebrated in Israel? Actually, Christmas is very much celebrated in several Israeli regions including the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, particularly in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
According to Why Christmas.com, “Bethlehem is about six miles (10 kilometres) south of Jerusalem (which is in Israel). Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ and back in history was famous for growing wheat for making into bread. Only about 20% of Palestinians are Christian, but many Muslim Palestinians are also proud that Jesus was born in a Palestinian Territory!”
For Christians in the Palestinian territory, there is a Christmas Eve parade through Bethlehem. “There are bagpipe bands in the parade, which you might not expect! Playing the bagpipes is a tradition left over from when the British army occupied the area between 1920 and 1948. People also dress up as Santa Claus and give out sweets. The streets and main square are decorated with lights.”
Cultures together at Christmas
One of the more famous parts of a Bethlehem Christmas is the Mass services at the Church of the Nativity held on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, evening, and midnight. Three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, oversee the church.
According to Customs of Christmas, “On December 24 the Roman Catholic Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem leads a procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, approximately 5 miles, to the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity was built in AD. 325 by Roman Emperor Constantine and rebuilt in the 500s by Emperor Justinian. The church houses the Grotto of the Manger. The Grotto is about the size of a railroad car illuminated with many candles. Incense is burned until the air is thick with it. A fourteen-point silver star marks the place believed to be the spot of Jesus’ birth. The grounds of the church also houses St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church, an Armenian Monastery, as well as churches and buildings of other faiths.”
Many attend, including local politicians, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Why Christmas.com describes the celebration in more detail. “The church is crowded and lots of frankincense, one of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus, is burnt. People also sing Christmas Carols on Christmas Eve evening in Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the Church.”
Christmas Days & Customs
The Christmas celebration dates are different for The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches. Instead of December 25, celebration services occur January 6 and 7. Customs of Christmas depicts that “Protestant Christians tend to meet in one. . . field outside Bethlehem where, according to tradition, the shepherds heard the angels proclaim the Lord’s birth. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians may also meet in rival shepherds fields. At these meetings choirs lead the worshipers in singing Christmas carols filling the night sky with beautiful music reminiscent of the angelic choir that first Christmas.”
Although most Israelites celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas, “. . . Christmas is celebrated in the Holy Land. Tourists from all over the world gather each Christmas to commemorate the birth of Jesus born to ‘save His people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21).”
Among the Israeli citizenry, Wikipedia claims there are more than 169,000 Israeli Christians as of December 2016 (about 2% population). Amazingly, 80% (133,000) are Arab Christians, with 25,000 Orthodox Christians from the former Soviet Union and a few thousand considered Messianic Christian Jews. So, Christmas is definitely an important celebration in all its variety. An online travel guide, iGoogledIsrael.com, gives you all kinds of tips for celebrating Israeli Christmas culture.
Not only from Bethlehem, you can celebrate in Jerusalem, Galilee, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Nazareth’s “. . . annual Christmas Parade, plus a Midnight Mass in the ever impressive Church of the Annunciation! And there is also an annual Christmas Market in Nazareth that typically lasts for a week or so.” A 2011 Jerusalem Post article also offered some shopping pointers along the way via Christmas markets operating in various cities around the Holy Land. It all begins in November with a Christmas bazaar on Bethlehem’s “. . . Star Street featuring crafts and games, food and drinks traditional to the holiday as well as Christmas decorations, trees, lights and much more.”
For the more adventurous, you could even hike the Nativity Trail, a “. . . 160-km route believed to be the same trek made by Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem. The trail snakes from the Christian Arab town of Nazareth, where Jesus was divinely conceived, to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.” Then there are life-sized, handcrafted Nativity scenes created from Italy for the Holy Lands.
Courtesy of Travelujah, a leading Christian social network connecting Christians traveling the Holy Lands, you just may see even more lights and sound of Christmas. You may even get to hear Christmas concerts in Abu Gosh, an Israeli-Arab town. And let’s not forget celebrating with Armenian Christians, and the Epiphany, a traditional baptism spot on the Jordan River!
All these wonderful Israeli multi-cultural Christmas celebrations don’t make light of the potential risks inherent in this region. So, be sure to check the US State Department on any regional and Israeli alerts when traveling in that part of the world. May we all be among those who continue to live and share the Christmas message and miracles here at home and around the world. May we find that “Christmas Connection From The Heart” within the diversity of all cultures.
Again, what country and culture sparks your Christmas curiosity?