Looking for Christmas cheer?

In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it seems at first as if the Grinch is again stealing Christmas.

Remember the scheming, green sourpuss who hated Christmas so much he tried to get rid of it? By the looks of it, he might be alive and well in Israel, because in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it seems at first as if the Grinch is again stealing Christmas. Granted, our apartments have no chimneys for Santa to slide down, but I still can't find any Christmas lights, not to mention a decorated tree in downtown Jerusalem, or any other sign it's Christmas. I can't blame our haredi mayor because, even in racy Tel-Aviv, hotels such as the Dan, Sheraton and Carlton aren't bragging about their Christmas parties, but hosting private non-denominational ones instead. You would think that the country's many municipality tourist information centers would have at least one suggestion on how to celebrate Christmas for our Christian residents and tourists, but callers come up empty handed. Luckily for churchgoers, the Christian Information Center Web site at www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/cic/CICmain.html has all the country's Western Church and Russian Orthodox Christmas services posted. If you're one of the 30,000 Christians expected in Bethlehem this year - compared to 18,000 in 2004 - activities begin at the Tomb of Rachel at 1 p.m. on December 24, when His Beatitude Michele Sabah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem (as well as representatives of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahua) proceed to Manger Square surrounded by a big fancy parade via Shepherd's Field. At 10 p.m. the doors of St. Catherine's open for the 700 lucky ticket holders - out of the 4,000 who requested them - to enter for midnight mass. If you are not able to enter Bethlehem, try Ramallah, where Quakers landed in 1868. This year you'll find a Quaker service in which congregants practice a non-formal service of song and an exchange of gifts. There are no outward signs or symbols or trees, just a few candles. At 10:30 a.m. on Christmas day, the Quakers hold a period of silence and an inclusive workshop in which anyone who feels the spirit has moved him is invited to recite a hymn or prayer. For a festive meal during the holidays, Anglo-faithful Mike's Place in Tel Aviv is having a blowout dinner party Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, complete with mash, molly blooms, and Bloody Marys. The American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem is notorious for its traditional Christmas turkey dinner and lunch starting with goose liver with fig mousse. If you're looking for a traditional Russian Christmas Eve Dinner, there is a rumor that the Christian-Russian community rented a local restaurant in Ariel, so check with the locals. In Nazareth, practically every restaurant in the city has a party chock full of spiked eggnog and mistletoe after midnight mass on the 24th. The Church of Scotland and Hotel, at 1 G'dud Barak in Tiberias, has an open buffet Christmas day starting at 12 a.m., with stuffed turkey, roast beef and makluba. Pastor Philip Saad, of the Baptist Center on Rehov Meir 43 in Haifa has an open guest policy for foreigners and others who do not have anywhere to celebrate. "Many Christians do not celebrate Christmas as it should be celebrated," says Violet Saad, the pastor's wife. "It's a joyful season and they celebrate it in a worldly way by eating and getting drunk with Santa, but without mentioning Jesus or praying. The main reason for Christmas is to pray for atonement for the sinners. We welcome everyone to join us." For a more conventional Christmas spirit in Haifa, try The Douzan Restaurant, Sderot Ben-Gurion 35, where there are several life-size snow-globes with Santas enclosed in a glass bubble surrounded by falling snow and reindeer. The entire fa ade is draped with glowing icicles. Even if Arabic/Italian cuisine doesn't grab you, the enormous glass bubbles are a must see. Yankees who miss the Macy's Christmas Parade can catch several smaller ones on December 24. Though they'll be without the grandeur, each parade will have parading boy scouts carrying colorful flags, marching drummer boys and bagpipe players. In Nazareth the parade starts at 2 p.m., and in Haifa and in Jaffa at 11 a.m. For nostalgia lovers, the Jerusalem YMCA offers a Christmas Eve service of scripture readings and carols at 7 p.m., followed by two Christmas carillon concerts by Belgium carillon player Jo Haazen at 8 and 8:30 p.m., and another on Christmas day at 1 p.m. And for theater enthusiasts, or those who simply want to relive the story of Christmas, The Nazareth Village at that biblical town's YMCA reenacts the night of the annunciation of Mary, but only for request grouping (see www.nazarethvillage.com). So, with all these events, maybe the Grinch didn't steal Christmas from Israel after all. The Western Church and Russian Orthodox Church both celebrate Christmas on December 25, while the Russian Church still uses the Julian calendar, which puts Christmas on January 7. The Armenian Church celebrates on January 6 by the Julian calendar, which translates as January 19.