We now leave the frozen northern extremities of Europe for the land where it all started. Not Santa, not St. Nicholas. Jesus himself. A stroll down the streets of Jerusalem or any other major Israeli city will not afford you many views of tinsel and lights or manger scenes. Even the relatively few Messianic Jews (Jews who believe in Yeshua [Jesus] as the Messiah) don't really celebrate it like most Christians in other countries. They tend to believe Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles (September or October). This does not mean Christmas is not observed. If for no other reason, the city of Jerusalem acknowledges its many expat residents by giving away free Christmas trees to internationals. My friend Norma tells me you can see them dragging the scrawny little trees through the streets. The city also provides free bus rides to Bethlehem's Manger Square, where there are carol sing-alongs and masses at the Church of St. Catherine and Church of the Nativity. Needless to say, foreigners flock to Bethlehem as well, which is wholly within Palestinian territory and almost entirely Arabic-speaking. Travelers from Jerusalem must pass through a military checkpoint. On Christmas Eve, Christmas carols can be heard at three packed out locations: the YMCA, the Lutheran Church, and Christ Church (Anglican). Even non-practicing Israelis are drawn to the joyful and reverent sounds of the music, and can be seen walking late at night from one carol service to another. At midnight, the bells of the Catholic churches resound throughout the Old City and beyond.
Although the town where Jesus grew up is now mostly Arab, Nazareth still puts on a Christmas display for the thousands of pilgrims who would otherwise be disappointed. There is a Christmas parade in early December, and lights, decorations and celebrations can be found throughout the season.
In the United States, it's difficult for us to imagine living in a country where those of us wanting to celebrate Christmas would be in a very small minority. From where I sit, it might actually be a welcome change to celebrate a quiet, reflective birthday of Yeshua without all the extra trappings that the holiday has accumulated over the years -- even avoiding the few celebrations put on for tourists and pilgrims.
Of course, that's easy for me to say -- I no longer have small children. :-)
In any case, חג מולד שמח (hag molad saméa'h)!