By NICOLE JANSEZIAN, TRAVELUJAH
From Christmas markets in Bethlehem to parades in Nazareth, the Holy Land is the place to truly experience seasonal festivity. There’s something for everyone to enjoy this Christmas.
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1. Go Shopping at a Christmas Market
Christmas markets are already set up and operating in various cities around the Holy Land. For a taste of the holiday spirit, Bethlehem is not to be missed. The festivities began in November with a Christmas bazaar on Star Street featuring crafts and games, food and drinks traditional to the holiday as well as Christmas decorations, trees, lights and much more.
At the Bethlehem Peace Center in Manger Square, you’ll find local crafts. There are also wares from Italy and Norway for sale.
In Jerusalem, the Latin patriarch is operating a smaller Christmas market from now until Christmas Eve. Located on the upper part of the Via Dolorosa, close to New Gate, the shop is selling Christmas decorations, crafts and Christmas candies and chocolates. The proceeds go to the Catholic scouts club.
You can also enjoy the Christmas lights which illuminate Bethlehem’s Old City which is especially decorated for the festive season.
2. Take a Walk on the Nativity Trail
For an adventurous, off-the-beaten-path Christmas experience, try hiking portions of the 160 km route Nativity Trail. This is 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.
Some of the Nativity Trail, as carried out by tour operators, requires driving to different sites and crossing checkpoints. The Nativity Trail begins at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. From there, other notable stops include Mount Tabor and the monastery of the Transfiguration; Zababdeh, a Christian town on the ancient Roman trade route; Nablus, where Jacob’s Well is located; Jericho, where Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus and ministered to the rich tax collector, Zacchaeus; Wadi Qelt where St. George Koziba monastery stands in a canyon and Bethlehem.
3. Enjoy the Christmas Tree Lighting and Concerts in Bethlehem
The annual Christmas tree lighting will take place on December 15, the first day of the Novena of Christmas, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, on the Manger Square with Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. This will be followed by carol singing and fireworks. The Christmas tree of Beit Sahour will be lit on December 17 next to the Catholic Church in Shepherd’s field.
The tree lightings will be followed by a Christmas Tree Exhibition from December 17 to 19 at the Bethlehem Peace Center. Several Christmas concerts are scheduled as well: On December 22, a Christmas Musical Concert with “Shibat” will take place at Ad-Dar Hall – Dar Annadwa at 7 p.m. On Christmas Eve, the Evangelical-Lutheran Christmas Church will host a series of short Christmas concerts each hour, beginning from 7 p.m. On December 29, the Bethlehem Christmas Festival will feature a 150-voice choir singing the world premiere of “The Gift of Christmas” at Ad-Dar Hall – Dar Annadwa at 6 p.m.
On December 19, the feast of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) will be celebrated in Beit Jalla, a small city next to Bethlehem, where St. Nicholas once lived. The holiday is going to be accompanied by a parade of local scouts.
While in Bethlehem, don’t miss visiting the Church of the Nativity off Manger Square, which is the focal point of the city during this season; the Milk Grotto, a smaller, peaceful chapel where Mary is believed to have nursed the infant Jesus and Shepherds’ Field, just east of Bethlehem in Beit Sahour, celebrated as the spot where “shepherds kept watch over their flock” on the night Jesus was born.
4. Visit Nativity Scenes from Italy in the Holy Land
From December 18, life-size nativity scenes, handcrafted in Italy, will be set up in Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the first time. In Bethlehem, the scene will be built in the cloister of St. Catherine’s Basilica. In Jerusalem, there will be two exhibitions: in the Latin Patriarchate and in the Custody of the Holy Land.
The art of making these life-size nativity scenes is a centuries old tradition, which can be traced to the early 1700s in the Trentino region of Italy. The tradition has been handed down through the generations and has become a family and town ritual. The figures of the Holy Family and the shepherds are carved out of wood.
The famed nativity scenes have appeared in St. Peter’s Square, Krakow, L’Aquila, Assisi and Istanbul in addition to the scenes in the Trentino valleys. During the Christmas season, the town of Tesero, Italy is transformed into a giant nativity scene. This is the first time they will be in the Holy Land.
5. Enjoy the Lights and Sounds of Christmas in Jerusalem
Despite Christians comprising a mere minority of the population, Jerusalem will be dressed up for yuletide cheer nevertheless.
The David Citadel Museum is hosting a season-appropriate tour of Old City churches in addition to a liturgical concert. On December 23, “Hallelujah,” a liturgical concert by the Barrocade Ensemble and soloist Revital Raviv will be combined with a Christmas tour of the Old City. The concert can be combined with a tour of the churches of Jerusalem’s Old City. The concert will be staged twice: the concert at 11 a.m. followed by the tour at 12:30 pm or the tour at 10:30 a.m. followed by the concert at 1 p.m. Tickets can be booked in advance by calling *2884 from a phone in Israel. The cost for both the concert and tour is NIS 90 and for the concert only 65.
Also in Jerusalem, the YMCA on King David Street will be decked out for Christmas. A large tree will be decorated and the season will be capped off by a Christmas Eve Family Carol Service on December 24.
And finally, in Jerusalem on December 24, don’t miss the festive Christmas Carols at Church at 7 p.m. followed by refreshments the service, communion and more carols at 10:30 p.m.
6. View the Entrance of Latin Patriarch into Bethlehem
On December 24 at 1 p.m. the ceremonial welcoming of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem to Bethlehem will take place. The entry is marked by colorful parades of scouts from the various churches marching through Star Street and Manger Square to the Nativity Grotto located inside the Church of the Nativity.
Of course, stick around in town for the annual Midnight Mass in the Basilica of the Nativity. Local Christians and pilgrims from around the world gather in the church for mass and prayers. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the event, only visitors who’ve received a special entrance ticket are allowed to enter the Midnight Mass at the Church. For a full list of services and information on how to get tickets, click here.
7. Watch the Christmas Parade and other Festivities in Nazareth
Although most of the Christmas action takes place in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the Arab Christian city of Nazareth has a lineup of Christmas celebrations beginning on December 24 with the city’s annual parade at 3:30 p.m.
The traditional parade through the main street of Nazareth includes thousands of Christian youth and the leaders of the Christian communities.
The parade will be followed by fireworks at 5:15 p.m. and then Christmas Eve Mass at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, December 25, Christmas Mass at the Church of the Annunciation the first Mass will begin at 7 a.m. At 10 a.m., a festive Mass will take place with the Custos of the Holy Land or Bishop Marcuzzo.
8. Enjoy Classical Christmas Concerts in Abu Gosh
It may be off the beaten path of Christmas, but the Israeli Arab town of Abu Gosh on the outskirts of Jerusalem will also have seasonal festivities. Two concerts will take place, one on Christmas Eve and the other on New Year’s Eve, featuring classical holiday pieces.
On December 24 at 12:00 p.m. at the Kiryat Yearim Church, an ensemble will perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Motet for soprano and orchestra. On December 31, also at 12:00 p.m., the Kiryat Yearim Church will host a “Christmas Oratorio – A Vocal Christmas Festival.” The concert will feature J.S. Bach’s Cantata no. 5 from the Christmas Oratorio, Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio and Poulenc’s Four Christmas Motets. Tickets for either concert are NIS 110.
9. Celebrate Christmas with the Armenians of Jerusalem
So you think just because it’s the middle of January you’ve missed Christmas in the Holy Land? Don’t worry – it’s not over yet. While Catholic and Protestant Christians celebrate on December 25, and Orthodox Christians on January 6, the Armenians in Jerusalem – and only in Jerusalem – celebrate Christmas on January 19, or on the eve, January 18.
The Armenians in Jerusalem are the only Christian community in the world to abide by the late Christmas date, 13 days after the Gregorian calendar of the traditional Orthodox Christmas date of January 6. The Armenians will actually have rung in the New Year on January 13.
For Christmas, the Armenian Patriarch, priests and a marching band will make a motorcade procession from the Old City of Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The processional then continues on foot at Bethlehem’s Manger Square into the Church of the Nativity. A Christmas mass will also take place at Saint James in Jerusalem, a unique service as the church has no electricity and is lit solely by the colorful oil lamps hanging in the square stone basilica. Services begin at 10 p.m. and continue until 6 a.m. in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
10. Be a Part of the Epiphany at Qasr Al-Yahud
The Epiphany is celebrated every year on January 18 at Qasr Al Yahud, the traditional baptism spot on the Jordan River. This fascinating and colorful ceremony attracts thousands of Orthodox pilgrims from around the world.
The feast of Epiphany (from the Greek for “appearance”) symbolizes the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem when Jesus was born and Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Epiphany caps off the Orthodox Christmas season. On this day, many Christians come from around the Holy Land and world to get baptized.
The joyous occasion can seem a bit raucous with dozens of young people playing pipes, beating drums and singing. The main procession is led by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and monks. At the height of the ceremony, the Greek patriarch releases white doves into the air while church bells ring.
Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah