Christmas in the Holy Land: Pilgrims and the Virgin Mary

Christians represented more than half (53%) of all incoming tourists to Israel in 2014.

 Statue of pregnant Mary and Elizabeth at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karim (photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
Statue of pregnant Mary and Elizabeth at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karim
(photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
During the December holidays, many Christian pilgrims and visitors come to Israel to walk the path of the Christmas story and follow Jesus Christ’s footsteps from Jerusalem to the Galilee, just as Christ did in the Gospels. 
Many pilgrims stop at the The Church of the Visitation in Ein Karim, just outside of Jerusalem, which honors a visit paid by the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-56). Elizabeth became pregnant by a miracle not too soon before the Virgin Mary also became pregnant by a miracle. The two mothers-to-be met at the church in Ein Karim, where according to tradition, Mary recited her song of praise, the Magnificent, one of the most ancient hymns to Mary sang today.
Franciscan priest Father Gabriel Hensel said visiting the church in Ein Karim is a highlight for Christian pilgrims.
“Not only the Gospel, but here the land speaks to us, the stories speak to us. I have felt this in many places in the Holy Land. When I first came to this church I realized that this is where the Magnificent first spoke. It strikes you inside,” Father Hensel said.
Even with the deep religious meaning of such Christian pilgrimages, numbers remain low this season.  This Christmas, 750,000 Christian tourists are expected to make their way to Israel.
Christians represented more than half (53 percent) of all incoming tourists to Israel in 2014 according to the Ministry of Tourism, but due to Operation Protective Edge, incoming tourism was significantly affected and 2014 is expected to end with a 1% decrease in Christian tourists and 7% fewer visitors than 2013. 
“Even the stories of ISIS, even though it is so far away from us in day to day life, it influences people in the USA and Europe,” Father Eamon Kelly of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem said.
"It is very hard to have people understand this. We easily brand an entire region with the terror of one fact.”
Despite this fear, Father Kelly encourages Christians to overcome this fear. He said the political situation has no impact on holy sites, and that there is virtually no danger these days.
“I can tell you that a pilgrimage in the Holy Land is one of the most powerful things there is,” Father Kelly says.”This is one of the best times to come since the numbers of tourists are down; there is easier access to the sites. Also, their presence means so much to the people here.”