Millions of pilgrims agree … there’s no better place to spend Jesus’ birthday than in Israel, the land of the Savior’s birth. There won’t be any snow, or mall Santas bellowing, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” but there will be plenty of true Christmas spirit—even in a land where only 2% of the population are professing Christians.
Here’s how the faithful can spend Christmas in each city when traveling to the Holy Land in search of an experience that leaves commercialism behind and keeps the Messiah foremost in mind throughout their holy day stay.
Jerusalem/Bethlehem: “Oh, holy night, the stars are brightly shining” … and so is the city of Bethlehem where the Old City comes to life at Christmas. It’s the one place without snow that looks like a Winter Wonderland—replete with streets lined with tinsel, lights and, of course, Christmas trees. And because gifts and food are also part of celebrating Christmas, Jerusalem offers colorful holiday markets filled with bountiful goods and regional foods.
Jerusalem landmarks such as the YMCA, along with the city’s churches, “feel the spirit” by holding services and Christmas carol concerts, including a Christmas Eve Family Carol Service. But the spirit isn’t just confined to four walls. Multiple Christmas-themed street processions, most of which pass through Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity can be seen throughout the Christmas season.
Pilgrims from around the globe congregate in the Old City, with people visiting Via Dolorosa and observing the carrying of the Cross of Christ. For some, joining fellow believers on this soul-searching journey is the closest way to experience the true meaning of Christmas.
Nazareth: Besides being Jesus’ hometown, this ancient city offers modern excitement in the form of a giant Christmas tree lighting, a Christmas parade, fireworks display, and plenty of Masses for the masses at the city’s large churches. Of note is the annual Christmas procession held on December 24, starting from the Diana Restaurant on Paul VI Street all the way to Mary’s Well Square near the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The highly anticipated lighting of the Christmas tree is also held at the Greek Orthodox Church.
Haifa is known for celebrating three religions’ holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid al-Adha. During Christmas, people of these faiths come together in peace and harmony to celebrate their various festivals. Activities include a circus, music, art fairs, local food fair prepared by the people of Wadi Nisnas, and much more. In Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem or just about any of its cities, Israel has a celebrated street food culture that especially flourishes at Christmas, with more crowds frequenting street vendors’ shops than in restaurants.
Tel Aviv/Jaffa: Tel Aviv’s Christmas celebrations are replete with red jolly Santas at every turn, decorated trees, a parade, and lots of great holiday shopping and delectable street food from every region of the country, including “outside” delicacies ranging from Mughlai to Afghani to Indian. When you’ve had your fill of St. Nick and that crick in your wallet, book a bus trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem for a midnight Mass.
Be it in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth or Haifa—or all the cities—no believer can go a lifetime without making a pilgrimage to Israel at Christmas. Besides unparalleled regional food and spectacular holiday festivities, the Holy Land offers something unique: a spiritual experience too mysterious to define, but which promises to bring modern-day pilgrims closer to the Divine. After all, starting with the birth of a baby in a manger, it is the land where it all began … making it the most holy of places.
Visit the land of Jesus’ birth and where He ministered, while experiencing all the other sights, smells, and sounds of a rich, multicultural Christmas during a Christmas spent in Israel!