On the same day that Bethlehem’s Mayor Anton Salman inaugurated the Christmas holiday season earlier this month with an impressive fireworks display and tree lighting in the town square, residents of the West Bank city’s three refugee camps — Aida, Dehaishe and Jibrin, also known as Azza Camp — continued their daily protesting against the Palestinian Authority.
The protests, which have included burning tires and blocking roads, aim to gain the release of several Palestinians arrested by Palestinian security forces for waving banners of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during the funeral of 14-year-old Amjad Abu Sultan last month.
Sultan was gunned down by Israeli forces after allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail near a military checkpoint in Bethlehem. The protests also threaten to ruin the Christmas festivities in the little town where Mary gave birth to Jesus some 2,000 years ago.
Focus on local tourists
Factor in Israel’s ban on foreign tourists imposed after the Omicron variant was discovered, and it looks increasingly like the Grinch will again steal Christmas this year in Bethlehem — just like last year’s holiday season amid a COVID-19 catastrophe.
Paradoxically, the absence of overseas tourists means Bethlehem is increasingly relying on local visitors — notwithstanding that it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Area A of the West Bank, which includes Bethlehem.
Operators like TouristIsrael.com are offering a Christmas Eve tour in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Beginning in the early afternoon, pilgrims will drive past Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, Kidron Valley and Old City walls before heading to Bethlehem.
It looks like the Grinch will again steal Christmas this year in Bethlehem
Following a festive dinner, celebrants will watch Midnight Mass at the Church of St. Catharine — adjoining the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Basilica of the Nativity built above the grotto where Jesus was born — on the huge screen set up in Manger Square. And with so few foreign guests, it may be possible to enter the Roman Catholic church — an all but impossible ticket to get hold of in normal times.
While Jerusalem is more associated with the death of Jesus at Easter than the birth of the Christian savior in a manger 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to the south, Christians in Israel’s capital also turn the city into a colorful and joyous seasonal celebration. Advent, the period leading up to Christmas that started on Nov. 28, was marked the evening before by a pilgrimage procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by the Catholic Custos of the Holy Land.
Celebrating in the Holy Land
The Old City’s Christian Quarter is decorated with festive lights. Not to be missed is the completely over-the-top Ho Ho Holyland! celebration put on — nightly, from 5 to 8 p.m., until Dec. 31 — in an alleyway in the Christian Quarter at the home of Issa Anis Kassissieh, the world’s only Father Christmas who rides a camel rather than driving the famous eight-reindeer sleigh. From the Jaffa or New Gate, just ask anyone how to get there.
A former basketball player, Issa — whose name in Arabic means Jesus — has been the official ambassador of the Holy Land Santa for six years and is a graduate of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan. This year he launched the holiday season by kayaking with a Christmas tree at Kursi in the Golan Heights.
Slightly more conventional but still great fun, the celebrations at the YMCA on King David Street offer Jerusalem’s most impressive decorations, and the Christmas Eve concert features various musical ensembles.
But if you’re really serious about experiencing Christmas without flying to the red countries of Europe, I recommend visiting Nazareth, the Lower Galilee city with the largest Christian community in Israel — composed of Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, Baptists, Maronites and Anglicans.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the city’s Mayor Ali Salam extolled Christmas in the place where the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to a son.
“Christians and Muslims are living together — one home, one family,” he said of his city of 100,000, one-third of whom are Christians. “We will be the bridge for peace,” he promised, inviting all Israelis to join in the festivities.
Fireworks during the inauguration of the Christmas tree lighting in the city of Nazareth, Israel.
Festivities and the pandemic
As in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, city officials are hopeful that domestic tourists will replace those unable to visit from abroad.
The celebrations began Dec. 1 with the lighting of the 25-meter (82-foot) Christmas tree, imported from China and covered with a dazzling array of LED lights. That towering evergreen — the tallest in the Middle East — stands near the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in the historic city center.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 14, Nazareth’s Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox community unveiled its own smaller but still impressive Tannenbaum by Mary’s Well. And on Dec. 12, President Isaac Herzog visited for a tour and a briefing on the Christmas preparations. He visited the COVID-19 ward at the historic EMMS Nazareth Hospital on Wadi el Jowani Street — also known as the Scottish Hospital and the English Hospital, established in 1861 by Dr. Kaloost Vartan and the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society.
Jesus’ hometown boasts several Christmas venues. For the first time, the city’s youth have created an illuminated pathway marked by some 1.5 million lights leading to the Mount of Precipice. According to Luke 4:29-30, Nazareth’s Jews, not accepting Jesus as Messiah, tried to throw him off the cliff, but “he passed through the midst of them and went away” en route to Capernaum on Lake Tiberias.
We will be the bridge for peace,
Nazareth’s Christmas Parade Association has been organizing the city’s annual Christmas parade since 1983. On Dec. 24 at 3 p.m., some 2,000 Boy Scouts, choir members and other youth groups will march 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) down Pope Paul VI Street from Mary’s Well to Casa Nova by the Basilica of the Annunciation, followed by fireworks at 5:30 p.m.
On New Year’s Eve, a midnight light show and fireworks display will light up the Basilica of Jesus the Adolescent, also simply known as the Salesian Church, located on the highest hill to the west above the Old City.
The Christmas celebrations continue in the New Year, Jan. 6-7 , explained the Rev. Simaan Bajjali of Nazareth’s Orthodox Annunciation Church, which has 20,000 congregants.
“I am doing my best to make this year’s celebrations a success,” promised Mayor Salam. “Visitors will feel safe, as if they were in their own home.”
Coronavirus? Bah, humbug.
*Born in Toronto, Canada, Gil Zohar is now a licensed tour guide based in Jerusalem. Prior to moving to Israel, he suffered from the seasonal malady affecting some Jews — Santa Claus-trophobia. Living here, he has come to appreciate that all religions have beauty.
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