The holiday season has become immersed in popular cultural worldwide, with Christmas villages popping up in major cities around the world, an abundancy of winter inspired hot drinks at local coffee shops and bars, and songs of a winter wonderland on the radio. However, the holiday celebration in Israel is one noted with the scent of fried sufaniyot and latkes wafting from nearly every corner, while festive klezmer music is blaring and people dance and light Hanukkah candles in the country’s many public hangout spots. With all the iconic imagery of Christmas and Hanukkah throughout the world, it is easy to forget that both holidays celebrate events that happened in modern day Israel. Although it would seem like the overlap of these two festive holidays is far and in between, for the communities of the Western Galilee, the rustic and festive winter holiday atmosphere is the best way to celebrate the holiday season.The eighth annual Western Galilee Now Winter Festival, which took place last weekend, was a beautiful mosaic of the heritage, culture, and religions that make up the Western Galilee. Produced by Western Galilee Now (WGN), a grassroots tourism association comprised of local artisans, winemakers, tour guides, chefs, musicians, cheesemakers, and more, the Winter Festival has become one of the region’s premier tourist events of the season, a true celebration of Galilean heritage and culture.“This has become a tradition for all of us in the Galilee,” explains Alaa Sweitat, owner of Aluma Galilean Bistro in Tarshiha, which was lit up with festive lights and decorations, while the candle lit enclosed deck gave guests a true taste of Galilean hospitality. “Although I am Muslim, I love to host our annual Christmas dinner for all my Jewish, Christian, and Muslim friends and guests of the festival. For me, Christmas is about the winter atmosphere and celebrating the season together around the table.” For Sweitat, one of the original members of WGN, the festival is really a celebration of the many faiths and ethnicities that make up the Galilee, and gives a major economic boost to the local economy, 40% of which is comprised of the tourism industry. As an affiliate of Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF), Western Galilee Now plays an integral role in JNF’s Go North campaign to develop the region and attract 300,000 new residents to the North.With 30 events over three days, and nearly 2,000 guests, the festival showcased the hidden gems of one of the most fascinating regions of the country, a deeply authentic experience that connects people together, not just through the sites and attractions, but to the unique stories and history of the hosting members of WGN. As the festival has grown over the past eight years, so too have the events, expanding into a celebration of winter culture, especially important during the colder winter months. TamaraHindi, an Ayurveda pharmacy specializing in Indian medicine, gave enthusiastic guests a workshop on herbal remedies for winter colds. At the Julius Distillery in Kibbutz Hanita, perfumer Ayala Moriel and distiller Joov Har Gil brought their two crafts together to explain the intertwined history and use of locally grown plants in herbalism and alchemy, traditionally practiced for centuries in the Galilee. Children from around the country learned to make chocolate for Hanukkah at Odette in Kibbutz Regba, and experienced an interpretation of the story of Creation at the Zikit Theater in Tefen. In the villages of Mi'ilya, Kfar Yasir, and Fassuta, WGN’s guides led sold out walking tours along the lit up streets and markets, reminiscent of European Christmas villages, as most of the visitors had previously never experienced this side of Israeli culture. “Last year at this time, I had a tour with five people, and now I could have had five more tours if I was more than one person,” explained Dor Pintel, a tour operator and members of WGN for two years. “This is another way to show other Israelis a different side of Israeli society. Here, you can drive just two hours to experience the same spirit that you would see if you flew to Europe.” For many, the true jewel of the Galilee is the world class boutique chefs, cheesemakers, and winemakers many of whom have been involved with the WGN Winter Festival since 2011. “Each year, we continue to bring more visitors to festival as Western Galilee Now’s membership continues to grow. Not a single member had to cancel an event due to low turnout, and in fact, most of our events sold out in a matter of days,” explains award-winning winemaker Johnny Stern, one of the founders of WGN, who hosted a packed table at his vineyard on Kibbutz Tuval. Stern’s six-course dinner and wine pairing has become a festival legend, selling out minutes after he posted registration online. Greeting each other like they have been friends for years, most of Stern’s guests have only met annually at his Winter Festival Dinner. “This is such a warm and inviting part of Israel, and our success is because each of us make sure that everyone who comes to the Galilee feels at home.”While it may not be the snow-covered winter wonderland that many think of this time of the year, there is no denying that the Western Galilee has demonstrated the true meaning of the holiday spirit. Coming together to share and celebrate their unique cultures and traditions, the members of Western Galilee Now have shared the most important holiday message of all—lighting up the world with happiness and celebration.