Christmas in Jerusalem
After the holiday of Easter in Israel, which for Christians is the most important festival in their calendar, Christmas is an incredibly popular time to visit Jerusalem. With dozens of churches in the Old City, near to the Old City and in the neighbourhood of Ein Kerem, there’s no shortage of places to spend this special time of year. And let’s not forget that - located just six kilometres from this holy city - is Bethlehem. Without a doubt, it’s an unforgettable place to celebrate the Christmas holidays.
Nativity scene. Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
For sure, Christmas in Jerusalem is a truly unique time of year. Whilst it can be chilly (don’t forget to bring some warm clothes, since it is high in the hills) it’s Old City's Christian and Armenian quarters are filled with beautiful decorations and have a truly festive atmosphere. Other landmarks in the newer part of the city, such as the YMCA, are also fine places to visit since they hold carol concerts and services.
And for a little luxury, you can always pop across the way to the elegant King David hotel for a drink at their elegant bar, or a meal in their famed fine-dining restaurant. Nevertheless, most pilgrims tend to congregate inside the walls of the Old City, so let’s take a look at what goes on there.
Old City Celebrations
On Christmas Eve, many Christian pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Jesus, from the spot at which he was tried to the site of his crucifixion and burial (Calvary), located at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. If you are within the walls, you will see them walking the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem and whilst this is something often associated with Easter in Jerusalem (and Good Friday services), it is still very moving procession to watch.
Midnight Mass is always held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred site for millions of Christians around the world. Dedicated in 336 CE, its lavish interior and extraordinary ambience make it a unique place to attend services. Whether of an Orthodox denomination - Greek, Coptic, Armenian & Syriac - or Roman Catholic - there will be chapels open for prayer and you will be astonished at a large number of candles lit there, only adding to the atmosphere.
Christmas tree. Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
Midnight Mass and the Annual Procession to Bethlehem
After Midnight Mass at the Holy Sepulchre, many pilgrims decide to participate in the Procession led by the Latin Patriarch, which winds its way through Jerusalem’s Old City. Latin Patriarchs are the Catholic episcopal see of Jerusalem and stretch back to the time of Arnulf of Chocques in 1099. After a period of time where they sat in Rome, Pius IX reinstated a Resident Patriarch in Jerusalem in 1847.
The procession passes by the Mar Elias Monastery, located in the south of Jerusalem and overlooking Herodion and Bethlehem. Maintained today by the Greek Orthodox church, it is decorated with Byzantine-style paintings depicting biblical scenes and worth a visit in its own right. The procession finally arrives in Bethlehem at around 1 am, passing by Palestinian scouts marching bands parading through Manger Square, bagpipe players, choirs that are carol-singing and an enormous Christmas tree. Pilgrims finally arrive at the Church of Nativity, the spot where Jesus was born in a stable.
A fine way to mark this special holiday could also be with a ‘Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and Bethlehem’ tour that culminates with a festive dinner and midnight mass outside the Church of Nativity. Not only will you be able to see landmarks in the city, but you will also eat with your group, close to Manger Square, before partaking in the Midnight Mass.
Christmas tree in Bethlehem. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Alternative Services in Jerusalem
For those who are less inclined to travel on foot to Bethlehem, there are a number of services at other churches in the city. At midnight, you could attend the Benedectine Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion and sing Christmas carols. Located at the highest point in Jerusalem, it commemorates the spot where Mary died (‘fell asleep’ as the name suggests). Look out for the dome above the statue of Mary - it shows pictures of six women from the Old Testament - Eve, Miriam, Yael, Judith, Ruth and Esther.
For protestants, the Christ Church offers fantastic hospitality, beginning around 7 pm with coffee, biscuits and carol singing. After prayer and discussion, there is a Christmas service that begins at around 10.30 pm and lasts until after midnight. The Episcopal St. Anne’s Church, just 200 metres from the Jaffa Gate, also offers services and a popular concert, which tourists love. The Armenian Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Spasm (also known as the Church of Sorrows of Mary) also welcomes visitors.
Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Sofia Emeliyanova
Notre Dame Centre and the YMCA
Another highly recommended spot to celebrate Christmas in Jerusalem is the Notre Dame Centre. This beautiful French cathedral is located opposite the Lions' Gate and was built in the 1880s, to accommodate pilgrims wanting to travel from France to the Holy Land. Constructed on land purchased by the Count of Piellat, its architecture is a fusion of classical and modern - and after decades of construction, a beautiful nave was put in place. (Our tip: arrive early and visit their lovely rooftop restaurant, to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate whilst watching the sunset over the Old City walls).
The annual Christmas Eve concert and singalong at Jerusalem’s famous YMCA is always a lovely (and multicultural!) affair, including classical music as well as Christmas carols. Built in 1933 by the American architect Arthur Harmon (who actually designed the Empire State Building) it runs educational and cultural programmes throughout the year and its Youth Choir and tree-lighting ceremony are always a lovely thing to see.
(Indeed, even at the height of the COVID pandemic, virtual services took place with a rendition of Ava Maria by the famed Israeli singer Achinoam Nini, as well as songs from the Nutcracker Ballet (accompanied by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra). Christmas-inspired concerts can also be heard at the Lutheran Church of Augusta Victoria. Located in the east of the city, on the northern side of the Mount of Olives, it was built at the turn of the century for the city’s German Protestant community who lived, at that time, in Ottoman Palestine.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
The Garden Tomb and Ein Kerem
The Garden Tomb (always particularly popular with Protestants) is not the first place you might think of visiting in Jerusalem, at this time of the year, but it’s not just a spot of worship for Easter. Located close to the Damascus Gate and believed by some to be the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, every year they hold an evening of Christmas carols that are sung in English, Hebrew and Arabic!
Finally, for those who care to venture out to Ein Kerem (which means ’Spring of the Vineyard’ in Hebrew) is a charming, lush hillside village, located in the southwest area of the city and famous for its ancient holy sites. These include the Church of the Visitation and the Church of John the Baptist.
Christ Church Courtyard in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin