Tourists visiting Jerusalem in Israel this year are getting a treat for Christmas. The city’s Young Men’s Christian Association is decked out every year with lights and Christmas decorations, but this year, the YMCA has really outdone itself.
A huge planted tree with colored lanterns stands out in front of the impressive building, located opposite the historical King David Hotel. Inside the halls of the YMCA a number of Christmas bazaars have been opened, with sweets and decorations being sold by smiling people in silly festive hats. The smell of spicy mulled wine wafts through the stalls enticingly.
At night, the lights from the building’s tower are so bright that they can be seen right across the city. They blend nicely with the Hanukah lanterns still decorating Jerusalem’s streets, marking the recently passed Jewish celebration of lights. The Hanukah decorations still present seem to add to the Christmas spirit that might be more commonly found in European or American cities.
erusalem feels like a city celebrating Christmas on a bigger scale than it has done in the past. The fact that Jerusalem’s municipality announced it had doubled the number of pine trees it handed out to Christian residents of the Old City, up from around 100 the year before, seemed to hint at this. The numbers of busy shoppers visiting the YMCA Christmas market and the size of the crowd braving the cold for the Christmas tree lighting at the Old City’s New Gate on 18 December seemed to confirm it.
The question remains however, why in a city where less than 2% of the population are Christian is Christmas being celebrated on a wider scale than in the past? Possibly it’s the creeping power of Hollywood inserting its favorite branded holiday into the minds of young Israelis. Perhaps people have decided to throw an extra-large party to make up for the lower than usual turnout of tourists as business has continued to suffer under the recent security situation? Or perhaps there’s more to it.
Interestingly it is not just local Christians and foreign pilgrims come to visit Bethlehem that are celebrating Christmas this year. A small number of Jewish Israelis are getting onboard too.
“Come celebrate Christmas with a bunch of Jews who grew up watching too many Hollywood RomComs and are sick of missing out on the holiday spirit,” Daniel Bernstein, a secular Jerusalemite throwing a Christmas party, invited friends via social media. Bernstein spoke to The Media Line as he returned home after purchasing his first ever Christmas tree. “There’s no real reason, it’s just a fun occasion,” he admitted, saying that not being an expert on Christmas trees, he was surprised by the strong smell of pine when he made his purchase.
Israelis are much less exposed to Christianity than Jews living in the Diaspora and so tend to view the holiday through the media and television, Jeffrey Woolf, a professor of religion at the Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line. This does not represent the holiday as it is experienced by Christians around the region, Woolf said, explaining that for them “Christmas is a profoundly spiritual holiday.”
An additional quirk of Christmas in Jerusalem is that it is not just celebrated on 25 of December. “We celebrate Christmas three times here because there are three major churches that are represented: the Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian,” Woolf said. For the Armenian Christians, the holiday will be celebrated this year on 6 January, for the faithful of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the festival is a day later.
On each of the days a procession departs from Jerusalem and walks the distance to neighboring Bethlehem, a practice which by and large keeps within the holiday spirit even if it necessitates the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority having to coordinate together, Wolf suggested.
As to the reason why Christmas is big this year, Bernstein had one suggestion. “Maybe it’s becoming more of a thing here because of the Russians who celebrate Novy God – which is pretty much Christmas without saying ‘it’s Christmas,’” he said.
After the fall of communism thousands of Jews left the former Soviet Union (USSR) for life in Israel. Many of these people, who now number nearly a million, celebrated the holiday of Novy God – New Year – in their former countries and continue to do so in Israel. Novy God was the only non-Soviet holiday allowed to be celebrated in the USSR and involves dinner with family and friends, toasting in the New Year and a Santa Claus like character named Grandpa Frost who hands out presents.
It’s possible that many of Israel’s secular young generation liked what they saw their Russian compatriots doing and decided to join. “All the Russians I know celebrate it…I wanted to try it out for myself,” Bernstein said.
Or possibly, they have just been watching too many romantic-comedies.
New Gate Christmas Tree, Jerusalem’s Old City (Photo: Dudi Saad/The Media Line)
Interior of The American Colony Hotel (Photo: Dudi Saad/The Media Line)