A journey of faith: Pilgrims celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land

Father Kelly of the Notre Dame Center explains that coming to Israel for Christmas "is a great conformation of the faith narrative.”

Christians gather to pray in Jerusalem (photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
Christians gather to pray in Jerusalem
(photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
Shannon Russell knew he had to come to the Holy Land for Christmas. God told him to.
“The other day I was driving on the highway and I heard God tell me that the only reason I was here is because Jesus died for my sins on the cross,” Russell said. “So I went right home and booked my tickets. Now I’m here.”
This is his first time in Israel, an experience he says is overwhelming, but he feels grateful for the hospitality of the Israelis.
“Before I came here I didn’t know that you could tangibly put your hand on the biblical characters and the places they were,” Russell explained. “It always seems like its just stories but here its real and that’s awesome.”
Russell isn't the only one. During the Christmas season in December and early January, an estimated 70,000 tourists come to Israel.
Each pilgrim makes the journey for a different reason, but they are all bound by a common spiritual cause and love for Jesus.
In 2013, over two million Christian tourists visited Israel. Statistics for 2014 are projected to be even higher. Of these Christian tourists, about a half were Catholic (49%); 20% were Protestants (the majority Evangelical); 28% were Orthodox (mainly Russian Orthodox) and 7% were from other Christian denominations. About one million (40%) of these Christian tourists defined themselves as pilgrims; about 30% said they were in Israel for sightseeing and touring and the remainder for other reasons.
Tourism suffered in the second half of 2014 due to the Gaza war. But many pilgrims still decided to look past the political situation and make the journey anyway. Roman Kozhan and Nataliya Heysa traveled from the United Kingdom during the holiday season as a part of an academic conference he was participating in. For the couple, visiting the cradle of Christianity has both deep historical and religious roots. They plan to visit both Nazareth and Jerusalem.
“This is where Christianity started so of course it’s very spiritual,” Roman said. “I worried about the political conflict a bit before coming here, but it's not so bad, and it's especially not too dangerous up in the North. If we were to go to Gaza it would be unsafe, but otherwise I’m not worried at all.”
Abu Hani Lioba Radke, the operator of the Christian information Center in Jerusalem's Old City said that what differentiates Israel’s holiday tourists from others is that they come to celebrate the season “from a religious point of view.” In Westernized countries, Christmas has become increasingly secularized over the years, but in Israel, the historical and religious meanings of Christmas remain at the forefront.
“You grow up learning about how Jerusalem is the home of the Passion of the Christ, and that Bethlehem is the place Jesus was born,” Aliga Bialek, a visitor from Poland, said while standing in line to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Christmas Eve.
”You sing about these places and you make nativity scenes and you talk so much about the stories, but you never think that you will actually go here. I cannot say that I am the most religious, but just to be here on this day is significant,” Bialek explained.
After some time in Jerusalem, most pilgrims head over to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve mass. They visited the Church of the Nativity or pray in Shepherd's Field. Those on pilgrimage often refer to Bethlehem as the “perfect place,” as both David and Jesus Christ were born in the holy city.
“When they come here they want to experience something special,” Radke said. “Jerusalem is very special, but at Christmastime it's much more special to visit Bethlehem, because it's where Jesus was born, so most pilgrims go there on Christmas.”
Father Kelly of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem led a mass for over 500 people on Christmas Eve and then took pilgrimage to Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
“There was a great concentration of people in Bethlehem last night, with lines lasting over an hour and a half to get to the manger,” Kelly said. “So many people wanted to be in proximity to the birth of Christ, an event that has defined the past 2000 years.”
It is not easy for most Christians to make the great journey, as it can cost thousands of dollars to travel to Israel. According to Kelly, many pilgrims arrive from poorer nations, and their families save money and chip in to send just one family member on the trip. These pilgrims photograph their experiences, bring gifts backs and tell their stories for the months following.
“They do this because coming here is a great conformation of the faith narrative,” Kelly said. “It's a strengthening, it's a renewal, it's the greatest spiritual gift.”