Saturday 25 December 2010

The Strange Thing About Christmas in the Holy Land

Christmas is undoubtedly the biggest annual event in the world. Whether you are somebody who believes in the religious aspects of the festival, somebody who follows its traditions or somebody who does not believe at all, it is difficult to go through the December period completely unaware of Christmas.

Despite this fact, Christmas in the Holy Land is something of a non-event. This may be unsurprising as almost all of the citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs, follow religions that do not believe in Jesus as the messiah, and do not celebrate Christmas. For those Christians who do celebrate the festival around the world, it is surprising that Christmas is hardly celebrated in the place where the story of Christmas actually began. Most Israelis have no idea of when Christmas occurs, or what it really means. In the years when the day falls on a weekday, it is a regular working day in Israel.

In recent years, Christmas has seen an influx of tourists to Israel. There are many pilgrims who wish to celebrate this special day by being in the places where Jesus actually spent his time, and where the best-known events of his life took place. Favourite spots include Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Bethlehem is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and they ensure that the scene is properly set for the celebration of a midnight mass in Manger Square and in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the many thousands of pilgrims who attend. Large numbers celebrate Christmas at the holy sites in the city of Jerusalem including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or by visiting the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa. Even though it is more traditional to visit the Jerusalem holy sites around the Easter holiday, many pilgrims can nonetheless be found in Jerusalem over Christmas as well.

Israel's holy sites play host to pilgrims from the three monotheistic religions. Under the Israeli government's policy, worshippers of all three religions have free access to their sites to celebrate festivals and at other times during the year. Whether it be Christmas, Ramadan or Yom Kippur, the sites are available to those wishing to visit in celebration of their own religious festivals. The policy of freedom to worship and celebrate festivals in Israel is so closely adhered to, that Christian pilgrims from Gaza were given permission to make the short trip to the West Bank to be allowed to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. With the recent security threats which have continued to originate from the Gaza Strip, this step is not insignificant. Naturally, it is also not something that the Palestinians would be keen to publicise for fear that Israel may have the opportunity to score some PR points.

For pilgrims visiting Israel over the Christmas period, being at the holy sites at this special time of year is certainly an unforgettable experience. They may, however, be disappointed when visiting shops and other parts of the country due to the complete lack of anything to do with Christmas. There are no decorations, tinsel or mistletoe to be found anywhere. For the majority of Israelis after all, it is a regular day like any other. Christmas decorations are more likely to be found in Israel during the festival of Succot when tabernacles are built and decorated. It seems to have become popular to recycle unsold Christmas decorations from last season to decorate the temporary booths that are constructed for this festival.

As a Jew who does not participate in all that is associated with celebrating Christmas, I feel good in the fact that other religions have freedom to visit and worship in our country. As long as they have respect for us and our land while here, I have no problem in allowing them free access to visit and worship as they wish. Besides bringing valuable tourist dollars to our economy, it epitomises the statement in our Declaration of Independence allowing for freedom of religion. It feels particularly good in light of our ability to rise above the poor manner in which these religions have treated Jews over the ages.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Even stranger in Christian Bethlehem is the rapidly dwindling Christian population forced to flee by the bullying violent Muslim just as it is in Coptic Christian Egypt with the bombings of their churches and Christmas day massacres perpetrated by we know who or the Maronite/Phalan
gist Christian community of the once Jewel of the ME, Beirut ,fleeing in large numbers to Latin America or the good old US of A while the Druze,Shiite ,Sunni Muslim melting pot of the region cooks it,s own goose in the lust for absolute power and centuries old Islamic mind control of the sheep,we wait in anticipation for the naming of Nasrallah and the Alawite dictator of Damascus ,the Ayatolllah back in Teheran and his puppet Ahmadinejad and other Islamofascist proxy Shiite nutcases in the special tribunal on Lebanon indictments,very soon ,inshallah ?