It makes sense that the city of Nazareth would be swarming with tourists a few days before Christmas. After all, this is where the story of Jesus began.
But a close listen reveals that these aren’t your usual Christian pilgrims visiting from faraway places. The giveaway is the language they’re speaking: Hebrew.
Jewish Israelis have fallen in love with Christmas, and nowhere is this more evident than the northern Arab city where more than two millennia ago, according to Christian belief, a woman named Mary received news that she was bearing the son of God.
Rather than spending the day in synagogue or hiking in nature, tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis descended on Nazareth this past Shabbat to experience a taste of Christmas.
Some are participating in organized Hebrew-language tours that, from a quick listen, appear to be geared toward Jewish Israelis with little, if any, knowledge of Christianity.
But most are just roaming around with friends and family, taking in a city they have likely never visited before.
Wearing their newly purchased Santa hats, they pose for selfies by the huge Christmas tree situated outside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. They hum along to the sounds of “Jingle Bells” blasting from loudspeakers in the streets. At the city’s fairly new Christmas market (set up less than a decade ago), they sample special Christmas sweets and drinks, admire the holiday-themed trinkets on display and purchase reindeer horn headbands as souvenirs.
They also line up – well, as close as Israelis get to forming an orderly line – inside the Basilica of the Annunciation to get a peek at the grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have once lived. The clearest proof that this is not your usual church crowd is the number of times the young priest standing watch has to request silence.
The Shovali clan, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod Hasharon, is out in full force on this gloriously sunny winter’s day. Close to a dozen members of the extended family, including two uncles and a set of in-laws, are gathered in the courtyard of the church, admiring the statue of the Virgin Mary and wondering where they should head for lunch.
“We wanted an authentic Christmas experience,” says Livnat Shovali, the designated family spokesperson.
A few meters away, Haim and Neta Shafir, a brother and sister, his wife Michal and their two daughters, are taking in the religious art on the walls. Never before have they visited Nazareth and Neta, who is sporting a Santa hat, explains why. “We grew up ultra-Orthodox,” she says.
Asked what brought her to this holy Christian site, she says: “It’s really nice to see how people from other religions celebrate their holidays. But the real reason I wanted to do this was for my nieces – they need to open their minds a bit.”
Yael Steinberg, who is here with her husband, two toddlers and parents, admits she came primarily for the kids. “They were dying to see all the Christmas decorations,” she says.
An excuse to celebrate
In 2005, a young Jewish-Israel social entrepreneur, Maoz Inon, partnered with a local woman in establishing a first-of-its-kind guesthouse in Nazareth. The Fauzi Azar Inn has since become a popular destination for local and foreign visitors, and Inon a well-known face in town. As someone who has been tracking tourism trends here for quite a few years, he can’t remember a season like this one. “In terms of the number of Israeli Jews coming for the Christmas festivities, it’s definitely a record,” he says.
To what does his attribute this newfound fascination with the Christian holiday? “Israelis travel abroad more and more, so they’ve become exposed to Christmas,” he says. “The advantage of Nazareth is that they can experience it all just a 90-minute drive away from Tel Aviv.”
Nazareth Tourist Board Director Tareq Shihada has a simpler explanation. “Jews are always looking for an opportunity to celebrate,” he says.
Yalla Basta, an Israeli company that specializes in culinary tours, started its Christmas-season tours of Nazareth just a few years ago. They are already a huge hit, according to marketing director Maria Zavin. “Last year, we ran nine tours on the weekend that preceded Christmas,” she says, “and this year we ran 22. We could have done even more but we ran out of guides.”
To capitalize on the growing popularity of this Christian holiday in the Jewish state, Zavin says Yalla Basta also increased the number of Christmas tours it ran in Jerusalem’s Old City this year. Now it is planning a new Christmas tour in Jaffa – which also has a significant Christian population – next year.
In recent years, midnight mass tours on Christmas Eve have become popular in Jerusalem’s Old City. The main customers are curious-minded Jewish Israelis.
“Sadly, Christmas is not something we learn about in schools in Israel,” says Efrat Assaf, a guide who has been running such tours for quite a few years. “But it’s a holiday that’s part of world culture – it’s a beautiful and festive holiday, and it all happened here, so it’s quite natural that there would be this interest,” she says.
Guy Ben-Porat, a professor at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, attributes the growing popularity of Christmas in Israel to globalization.
“For many Israelis, religion in general has become less threatening and of greater interest,” says Ben-Porat, who also studies religion. “It’s kind of like Black Friday, which has suddenly become a big thing here.”
Generations ago, Jews were known to lock themselves in their homes on Christmas Eve, to avoid attracting the attention of those who might consider them “Christ killers” and be out for revenge. Those days are long gone, notes Ben-Porat. “If years ago Christianity was considered a big threat, today it’s seen as a big ally,” he says.
Debbie Weissman, the former president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, believes this newfound openness and interest in the Christian holiday has to do with Jews having a homeland of their own.
“For me, part of Zionism is feeling secure in our own land, where we’re a majority, and being able to tolerate minorities,” she says. “That can explain why we’re less hesitant to enjoy the beauty of Christmas – and it is indeed a lovely festival.”
At the same time, she worries about Jewish Israelis getting carried away. “We should appreciate Christmas and tolerate it, but we also need to remember that it’s not our festival,” she says. “When it starts becoming a substitute for our own festivals and we start losing our identity, then I have a problem with this whole trend.”