(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
The Sunday before Christmas, mass services at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher run so close to each other that the chanting of the monks overlaps and echoes through the dimly lit hallways of the old stone cathedral. Solemn processionals circle through the stations of the church, candlelight straining to reach the corners of the cavernous building. The church, believed to encompass the area where the cross stood and the cave where Jesus was buried, is like a mini-United Nations: It serves Coptic Christian, Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox congregations at different points throughout the day.
The church is bursting with Christian tourists in Israel for Christmas, following the paths of the monks throughout the building and clustering around guides in the courtyard. Christmas is certainly in the air in the Old City's Christian Quarter, but they'll be hard-pressed to find evidence of the holiday outside the Old City walls.
Jewish tourists in Israel for the first time marvel at the lack of Christmas spirit - no "Deck the Halls" music in coffee shops, no happy-ending made-for-TV specials, and no last-minute-shopping Christmas Eve stampede at the mall. But despite the low level of visible Christmas cheer, the city is still preparing for Christmas and the throngs of holiday visitors in more private ways - inside churches and Russian supermarkets, in the narrow passageways of the old city and the festive Christmas trees adorning apartments of foreign workers.
"The four or five days before and after Christmas are some of our busiest," says Ghassan Atiyeh, whose family has owned The Nativity Bazaar, a stall that sells religious paraphernalia next to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, for more than 85 years. In between the baby Jesus figurines and votive candles, Atiyeh, who is Muslim, reflects on decades of selling artifacts to religious pilgrims. "It goes back and forth," he says. "The tourists come when there's peace."
Since the off season for tourists extends from October to March, the period before and after Christmas is a good indicator of how the next tourist season will be and whether tourists will have deep pockets.
This year, thanks to cheap flights from Europe, most of the religious pilgrims coming to Jerusalem are from Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Germany and France, according to an informal count by the Tourism Ministry's information office located inside Jaffa Gate. Given the economic situation, fewer American pilgrims are in the country than in previous years.
Christian tourists aren't the only ones going to church on Christmas. Jewish Israelis make up a huge portion of the mass services at all the major churches in Jerusalem. "We have hundreds of Israeli visitors who are curious about how Christians celebrate Christmas," says Reverend David Pileggi, the rector of Christ Church in the Old City. "They're the same kind of people who want to see Slihot - secular people looking for something unusual or different." The Christ Church will present a four-hour Christmas concert, taking advantage of the excellent acoustics in the stone cathedral, which they expect will draw almost 1,000 people over the course of the night.
If you miss Christmas the first time around, the
Coptic calendar will give you a second chance. The Ethiopian and Russian Orthodox churches follow a different calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7. The date, 13 days after the 25th, is believed by many to be the day that the three wise men finally found the manger with baby Jesus. Inside the Ethiopian Church on Rehov Ethiopia in the center of the city, sunlight streams through stained-glass windows and illuminates the blue dome, sprinkled with stars and paintings of prophets to simulate the night sky.
"More people should come see our church," says Tesfar Mezgebo, a 24-year-old Ethiopian Christian who has been in the country for a year and a half. "People should see us at full capacity on Christmas - 3,000 individuals come to pray here."
However, the holiday cheer associated with feel-good Hollywood Christmas specials is bittersweet for many of Israel's foreign workers, who celebrate far from home and family. Loneliness and alienation can strike especially hard during this season. To make up for the lack of blood ties, many foreign workers create their own family of friends to celebrate the holiday. "In the Philippines, we call Christmas 'The Gathering.' Usually when a family member is far away, they come back for the holidays, Christmas and New Year's. Everyone comes from all over - friends, relatives, everybody," says Romel Tagudin, a 33-year-old Philippine native.
Tagudin is taking a break from his holiday shopping at a Russian supermarket in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, eyeing the meter-tall plastic Santa Claus and the array of chocolates wrapped in red tin foil. "It's very hard. Sometimes you just have to accept it and deal with it. I'm here not only for my future but for the future of my kids. That's what I'll be thinking this Christmas."
Tagudin will be celebrating Christmas with more than 50 fellow Filipinos at a lively dinner. They'll eat the traditional holiday meal of dinuguan, a pork stew. Gifts will be exchanged - Tagudin is responsible for getting a gift for each of his 10 godchildren in Israel. At 10 p.m. they'll head to church to celebrate mass, and then party for the rest of the night. Early in the morning, they'll travel to Bethlehem for a special Christmas Day mass. Back at home in Davao City, Philippines, Tagudin has two children, aged 10 and 11. He hasn't been back to see them in over eight years.
"We have no choice. We come here to work for our children," Tagudin says. "It's hard, but we trust in God."
Being in Israel during the Christmas season is
both wonderful and strange, Tagudin says. "For
us, as Christians, it's an honor to be in Bethlehem
[for Christmas] because not all Christians can go
to this place. We're proud of it."
But living in a city that's overwhelmingly Jewish, he misses the sights and sounds of Christmas. "Here, if you don't go to church," he says, "you won't feel Christmas at all."