Taking a picture of Father Nikodemus is a challenging task in the final days before Christmas. As the Benedictine monk poses in his black robe at Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, a pilgrim approaches him every five seconds with questions, disturbing the shoot. “Sorry,” he says, “we have 5,000 visitors every day.”
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The German priest is standing beneath an Advent wreath counting down the weeks until Christmas. He and his Benedictine brothers have been lighting a candle every Sunday, with the fourth and final one being lit this Sunday – Christmas Eve.
It’s the most festive Christian holiday. And, of course, Jerusalem is seen as the most important place in which to celebrate it.
And maybe the most absurd one, too. When Nikodemus opens the gate of his church on Mount Zion this Sunday, a huge line of people will be waiting for midnight mass. But it won’t be pilgrims approaching him then.
“It’s a strange evening,” says Nikodemus, laughing. “I guess I’m the only priest in the world who celebrates Christmas with an almost entirely Jewish audience.” Ninety-five percent of the 1,000-plus visitors on this special night are Jewish Israelis, he estimates.
“For them, our church is a mystical place – the robes, the incense, the chants. They want to experience what Christmas is about, and there is no better place for that than Jerusalem,” he says.
Hana Bendcowsky, from the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, recommends Dormition Abbey as the ideal Yule venue because it performs major parts of the Christmas mass in Hebrew and English (services at the abbey are normally in German – Kaiser Wilhelm II bought the land at the end of the 19th century and presented it to the German Union of the Holy Land). Also, other churches limit the number of strangers on Christmas Eve, in order to ensure that community members will be able to participate. The Benedictines are open to all.
Bendcowsky conducts lectures about Christianity and Christians in the Holy Land for teachers, soldiers and tourists. “A lot of Israelis know nothing about Christianity,” she says. The only time they experience it, she opines, is when they go to Europe, visit the Christmas markets, drink hot wine. “That’s the attraction of Christmas: The feeling that you’re abroad, the exotic charm. At Hanukkah, we light candles and that’s it. Christmas is really exciting – the nice tree, the gifts, the shopping.”
Snow and oversized sweaters
It seems Christmas has gained a reputation for being a fun event, luring even young Tel Avivians to Jerusalem – a city they are normally reluctant to visit. Eliran Levy, a 31-year-old consultant from Tel Aviv, has decided to attend this year’s mass.
“In recent years we started gathering, buying each other drinks and even decorating the house in the Christmas spirit,” he says. “We don’t have a real winter here, so it feels nice to celebrate a holiday that is associated with snow and oversized sweaters.”
Nikodemus cites another factor. He has heard of some Jewish visitors with German parents or grandparents, who told them about “Chrismukkah” – when, before the Holocaust, some German Jews celebrated Christmas as a secular festival, or even transferred Christian customs like a decorated tree, songs or gifts to Hanukkah. “I guess they come for nostalgic reasons,” says the priest.
Nikodemus, 39, is prior of the Benedictine abbey on the southern edge of the Old City, near Zion Gate. He first joined the monastery in 2003, and it is a Benedictine rule that brothers then stay in the monastery they have chosen until they die. “Jerusalem is a wonderful place with a very intense history that’s always present,” he says, explaining his choice. “Religion is alive here – we have 50 denominations. It’s a kaleidoscope, a fascinating city that challenges you every day.”
His biggest challenge on Christmas Eve is not being perceived as being a missionary – without downplaying the significance the night has for Christians. Nikodemus says he addresses the problem straight away, telling the congregation: “I want you to go home as Jews, but still I will preach today about how great Christmas is.”
It’s one of the major differences between the two religions, that have so many things in common: The belief that God became human, that Jesus was born as the messiah.
The message Nikodemus tries to convey is that “our god is not a berserk but a loving god, who is all-mighty but made himself vulnerable this night.”
In the 15 years Nikodemus has celebrated Christmas in Jerusalem, he has never encountered any problems. People thank him afterward for a beautiful night, he says. After the service, the monks offer breakfast before commencing their annual journey to the Church of the Nativity – the site in Bethlehem where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Since Israeli citizens are not officially allowed to enter the West Bank, this pilgrimage will narrow down to the monks and a small group of Christians – mainly foreigners working in Israel (such as journalists and NGO workers) who didn’t fly home or brought their families over here to celebrate.
They will carry a scroll with thousands of names of people from around the world who couldn’t make it to Bethlehem themselves, but who asked the monks to pray for them and their loved ones.
In the Bible, the shepherds who came to see the baby Jesus in the stable walked through fields in a silent night full of stars. Nowadays, the monks walk along the main road, 9 kilometers (5.5miles) through the cold as garbage trucks pass by.
The Christians will arrive at the checkpoint to Bethlehem at around 4 A.M., Palestinian laborers waiting on the other side to cross into Israel for the day. As they reach Bethlehem, the muezzin will be calling Muslims to morning prayer. And when they enter the church, they will already find some Filipino women who don’t get a day off and want to pray before they start working.
One could wish for a more festive environment, but Nikodemus says he loves this particular scene: “In this night we’re confronted with everything that makes this land special,” he says. “It’s everyday life. Nothing fancy – just like the night Jesus was born.”
Decorating the tree
In the days leading up to Christmas, the monks are busy with preparations. Of course, one of the most important tasks is decorating the Christmas tree.
Many years ago, Israel planted a little forest of conifers for the Christian communities near Beit Shemesh. Every year, the Benedictines rent a truck, together with other Christian communities, to collect their tree. Because the kind of tree that’s normally used for Christmas – the Nordmann fir, which grows more densely and at ceiling-friendly heights – doesn’t exist in Israel, they don’t take a whole tree but share some of its branches. “Luckily, one of my brothers used to be a carpenter,” Nikodemus says. He glues and sticks together different branches so they ultimately resemble a common German Christmas tree.
There might not be the perfect tree, the seasonal hubbub, the festive lights in the city centers and Christmas songs playing on the radio. But Christians in Israel can experience something that only happens here: three Christmases one after the other.
Western churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 (according to the Gregorian calendar); Eastern churches follow the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, so they celebrate on or around January 7; the Armenian Church celebrates Christmas coinciding with the arrival of the Three Wise Men and Jesus being baptized on January 6 (also according to the Julian calender) – so they celebrate on January 19.
In the days following the celebrations, it’s become customary for Jerusalem’s Christian communities to visit each other and mark each other’s traditions.
“We call it the ‘coffee and liqueur ecumenism,’” says Nikodemus, smiling broadly – which basically means the communities make each other drink and eat lots of sweets. Nikodemus says the rituals of the Ethiopian Church community, the smallest in Jerusalem, are the strangest: They sometimes confuse Easter and Christmas sweets, giving out chocolate Santas at Easter and chocolate bunnies at Christmas – and sometimes serving popcorn. Again, this is something you can only experience when you celebrate Christmas in Jerusalem.