Christmas in Israel
Whether you’re a practicing Christian, an amateur historian, a theology student or simply a curious tourist, we think it’s fair to say that there’s nowhere like Israel to spend Christmas. Actually, the fact is that Israel is probably the ultimate place to spend this time of the year, with cultural and religious events held throughout the country, both in the larger centres and smaller towns.
Christmas tree in Bethlehem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Now if you’re coming from North America, or Western Europe, the chances are that you’ll associate Christmas with the date 25th December, the date that many believe commemorates the birth of Jesus. However, in Israel, Christmas is actually celebrated on three different dates - December 25th, January 7th, and January 19th. This, of course, is because different denominations follow different calendars - the Roman Catholic church follows the Gregorian calendar whilst the Armenian Church (in Jerusalem) and the Greek Orthodox Church follow what is known as the Julian calendar.
What does that mean in practice? Well, essentially that Roman Catholics (as well as Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, celebrate on December 25th, and actually the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates on this day too. However, according to the Julian calendar, which is about 13 days out of sync with the Gregorian calendar. December 25th actually falls on January 7th!
To make things even more complicated, the Armenian Church in Jerusalem celebrates Christmas on January 6th (according to the Julian calendar) which - in real terms - ends up being January 19th according to Gregorian calculations.
Surprised Santa. Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash
A Unique Experience in a Holy Land
Over the years, in practice, Christmas celebrations in Israel have slowly become more aligned with Western celebrations - including the putting up of Christmas trees. Decorations of light and even Christmas markets. However, let us not forget that this is the Holy Land, and prayers, worship, celebrations, and the reciting of beautiful liturgies always take center stage, both in Bethlehem (famous for being the birthplace of Jesus) and many a communal feast!
Ultimately, spending Christmas in the Holy Land has to be on many a bucket list and few come away from this kind of experience disappointed. So for those of you lucky to be arriving in a few months (and, sorry, as you know there are no guarantees, thanks to COVID-19), we thought we’d fill you in. It’s been a mad 18 months and having something to look forward to always helps so here’s our complete guide to the hows, wheres, and whys of Christmas events and services all over Israel. Happy Holidays everyone!
Christmas in Jerusalem
There’s no more atmospheric place to be than Jerusalem at Christmas time. The festival is really quite visible in the streets - with decorations and lights on many corners - more than anywhere else in Israel - which means you can really soak up the atmosphere. Whether you want to wander from church to church in the Old City or enjoy something a bit more modern around the Mamilla Mall or the YMCA, you won’t be short of activities to enjoy in a city that combines old with new.
There are quite a few Christmas markets, the most popular of which seem to be the one at the New Gate that runs from Saturday to Tuesday in the week before Christmas Day (free entrance). For something more young and fun, head to the Abraham Hostel for their annual party, or walk over to the YMCA which holds a lovely evening each year, complete with carols, musical performances, and sometimes even dancing.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Within the walls of the Old City, the most popular church to visit at this time of year is usually the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected, each year it holds a solemn Midnight Mass and the atmosphere inside the church - lit with hundreds of candles - is nothing short of spectacular.
There are also many other places to enjoy liturgy - both in the Christian and Armenian quarters and also at the Church of All Nations and also Dominus Flevit) with its famous and evocative glass window) on the nearby Mount of Olives. For a more detailed look at what to do in this extraordinary city, over December, take a look at our Christmas in Jerusalem article.
Christmas in Bethlehem
At this time of year, this small town just a few kilometers from Jerusalem comes to life, with Christians, Jews, and Muslims all celebrating together at the city’s central area, aptly named Manger Square. There’s a huge tree lit up for Christmas in Bethlehem, and you’ll no doubt hear carols being sung and have a chance to enjoy performances.
Midnight Mass is held at the Church of the Nativity but, because of its popularity, entrance is by ticket only. But fear not - the mass is live screened around the world and you can watch it happening inside the church from a huge screen installed outside, in Manger Square. This really is an astonishing experience, and many visitors enjoy a Christmas Eve in Bethlehem Tour, which includes a festive meal in the area.
Church of Shepherd's Field, Bethlehem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Christmas in Nazareth - Market Stalls and Firework Displays
Nazareth might be a small city in comparison to Jerusalem, but it’s definitely worth a visit at this time of the year. Home to Israel’s largest Christian population, historically it was the place Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel (announcing to her that she would bear a child) as well as being the place where Jesus spent his childhood.
Nazareth is also within a short driving distance of the Sea of Galilee (if you’re in the mood for an outing and want to enjoy pastoral views, the famous baptismal site of Yardenit, and beautiful churches, including those where Jesus performed miracles and gave his famous Sermon on the Mount).
Within Nazareth itself, there are beautiful churches to visit, including the Church of the Annunciation and the Church of St. Joseph. The city begins celebrating Christmas in the early part of December, with the lighting of a large Christmas tree in the city center. Trees are put up in many streets and there are also outdoor markets with stalls, where you can enjoy both Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations (Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of lights).
On Christmas Eve, which is December 24th, why not join the afternoon parade which proceeds through streets towards the Church of the Annunciation, where you can afterwards enjoy a lovely firework display? Christmas mass is then held inside, at the Basilica, at 7 pm.
Inside the Church of Annunciation, Nazareth. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Christmas in Jaffa - Music, Lights, Artwork and Mass
Jaffa, which sits just south of Tel Aviv is another beautiful place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims have lived peacefully side by side for years now. In December, the vibrant Jaffa Flea Market (which is always good if you’re looking for vintage finds, cheap clothes, or just some ‘treasure’) is adorned with Christmas lights. After you’ve wandered the area, you can enjoy a light bite, some traditional hummus, or a local mint tea in one of the many cafes there, before taking a walk down to the historic Jaffa Port.
On the way, stop on Yefet Street and admire the huge Christmas tree that stands by the Clock Tower. There are often Hanukkah celebrations at the same time (last year, there were illuminated dreidels - the toys that children spin on this fun Jewish festival). There’s lots of artwork to see and several musical performances, as well as lots of cultural and communal activities. You can attend Midnight Mass and other Christmas services at one of the Catholic and Protestant churches around the city:
St. Peter's Church - this Franciscan church in the historical part of Jaffa is where St. Peter performed numerous miracles and, perched at the top of a hill, has been a Christian center for thousands of years.
Immanuel Church - built in 1904, to accommodate the area’s German Evangelical community, this Lutheran church is always happy to greet new faces and stands on the foundation of Judaism and the Jewish People.
St. Nicholas’s Monastery at the Jaffa Port - built in 1 CE, and today hosting an Armenian church, this is one of the oldest structures in Jaffa and Napoleon even visited his soldiers here in 1799!
St. Anthony's Church - opened in 1932 and named after the monk Franciscan Mafdobe, a Franciscan patron, this church is very popular with Catholics. It offers beautiful interiors and a serene atmosphere. At its front, there is a unique clock.
And just to make it clear, the doors of all of these churches are open for everyone - so whether you’re a local or tourist, a Christian, Muslim, or Jew you’re are welcome to pop in and experience some traditional Jaffa hospitality!
Old City of Jaffa, Israel. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Christmas in Haifa - The ‘Holiday of Holidays’
Haifa is one of the few cities in Israel where Arabs and Jews actually live side by side, in relative harmony (and we say ‘Hallelujah’ to that!) A real Mediterranean city, situated on a hill and offering picturesque views of the surrounding Mount Carmel, it’s a wonderful place to walk around, with lovely architecture, small stores, and the famous Bahai Gardens.
If you’re here in December, start with a walk around the traditional Wadi Nisnas neighborhood (a traditional and somewhat mixed area of Arabs and Jews). ‘Nisnas’ in Arabic means ‘mongoose’ and is a maze of old streets and alleyways, filled with small stores, bakeries, and artisan workshops.
From there, you can head off into the German Colony, an area that has been beautifully restored in the last two decades. Look out for the famous Templar houses, built in the 1860’s - they have distinctive roofs - and stop for a coffee in one of the many bars and restaurants that line the main street.
In the weeks before Christmas, Haifa loves to enjoy the 'Holiday of Holidays' with a series of events that mix up Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid-al Adha! These include arts and crafts for kids, an antique fair, food prepared by the locals in Wadi Nisnas, music by local artists, and even a circus. And, naturally, there’s also a beautifully lit tree.
Christmas tree. Photo by Kieran White on UnsplashTogether, this ‘Holiday of Holidays’ represents a marvelous idea - that of coexistence. It’s all about a group of residents that live together harmoniously, each showing respect for the other’s religious and cultural values, and understanding that their lives and destinies are truly interwoven. It represents all that is good in Haifa.
You may also want to visit the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery in Haifa and participate in carol singing and Midnight Mass or Christmas morning mass. It is a beautiful and historic church, dating back to Crusader times and actually associated with the prophet Elijah.
So wherever you end up traveling in Israel over this special time of year, drink in the atmosphere, enjoy the lights, music, and festivities, and happy holidays to you!