How Lovely Are Your Branches

Jerusalem municipality gives away free trees for Christmas

Margaret Evans spent a few minutes Thursday morning watching people trickle into Jaffa Gate Square at the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, where some 250 Arizona cypress trees were stocked in a large green metal bin, ready for people to come and pick them up for Christmas.

Evans, a white-haired nurse of 57, patiently waited while children played with her two small dogs. Then she made her way to the green bin. But Evans, a Christian Zionist from northeast England, didn't want an entire tree - only a few branches.

Like many of the people who came two days before Christmas to pick up their trees, Evans - one of about 14,500 Christians living in Jerusalem - said the tree itself was more a fun custom than an important one.

"I like to decorate the house [with the branches] because it's in my tradition to have Christmas - and it smells very nice," said Evans, who lives in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and has been in Israel for 25 years.

The Jerusalem municipality distributes the trees annually and has done so for "dozens of years," said municipality spokesman Gidi Shmerling. The municipality gets the trees, which are sparse and small enough for most people to hold with one hand, from the Jewish National Fund, which grows them in a forest in Givat Yeshayahu.

The JNF gives out a total of 1,200 trees to religious leaders, diplomats, the foreign press and the United Nations, as well as the municipality. Issa Kassissieh, 26, said his family decorates the Christmas tree with glass balls and lights, and places it in a corner of the dining room in their Old City home.

While Kassissieh sees Christmas as the one time a year when his whole family comes together, Alexander, 33, sees the church service as the most important aspect of the holiday. The Old City resident decorates the tree with toys, ribbons and nuts wrapped in aluminum foil, but what he relishes most is his planned trip to Bethlehem for mass.

"For us the most important thing about Christmas is the birth of Christ," he said. "The tree is a decorative thing."

At Francis Karam's home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud, family members decorate their tree with lights, chocolates and pieces of cotton, "like snow." Karam, a jocular 69-year-old, also builds a nativity scene at the bottom of his tree.

"And then we l'chaim [make a toast]," said Karam, whose favorite Christmas tradition is the concept of peace. "We drink whiskey and forget about life, forget about war, forget about everything."