The Holy City doesn’t dazzle and frazzle you with weeks and weeks of pre-holiday buying frenzy. It doesn’t reach into your consciousness and compel you to count down, day by day, to the most dramatic date on the calendar. You will hardly see the evergreens, silver stars and tinsel, red-and-white Santas and bewitching array of shiny tree-ornaments that typify the season in nominally Christian countries. (A minor exception is the little storefront displays in the Old City’s Christian Quarter.)
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Jerusalem is different. Its population of 800,000 is overwhelmingly Jewish (62 percent) and Muslim (35 percent). Only 2 percent are Christian. For the bulk of Jerusalemites, certainly in the residential neighborhoods beyond the Old City walls, Christmas comes and goes with hardly a murmur.
Christians naturally take the day off, the church-run and international private schools are on vacation, and Jewish expats who grew up surrounded by the mystique of December 25 may be aware of the holiday, but for most everyone else it’s business as usual.
In the Holy City, however, the thoughtful pilgrim can leave behind the commercialized, high-octane exuberance and rediscover the spiritual message of “unto us a child is born.”
Churches and religious sites will be crowded, but you can often find a quiet corner, a side chapel, a bench or a tree to call your own for some moments (or an hour) of contemplation. A few places are beyond your control – you’ll need to stand in long lines for the inner sanctum of Jerusalem’s “Holy Sepulcher” and Bethlehem’s “Nativity” – but getting there as early as you can is a good tactic.
Some Eastern churches celebrate Christmas in January, but for most Westerners, December 24-25 is the date. The website of the Franciscan-run Christian Information Centre lists most Christmas services, Catholic and Protestant alike. Pay attention to the language of the service (Latin, Arabic, English, etc.).
The midnight mass in Bethlehem’s St. Catherine’s Church (the Catholic wing of the Church of the Nativity) is very popular and requires prior reservation. The town is in Palestinian territory: bring your passport and keep it safely on your person.
The Israel Ministry of Tourism runs a complimentary bus service between Mar Elias monastery (Hebron Rd., at the south-eastern edge of Jerusalem) and the Church of Nativity, from midday December 24 to midday December 25.
Here are two stand-out Christmas concerts. (1) Saturday, December 14, at 7:30pm, in Christ Church (just inside Jaffa Gate): An intriguing international program of Christmas music by a well-known singer/harpist. (2) Tuesday, December 24, at 7pm, at the YMCA (King David St.): A choral concert of classics and carols.