COVID-19 and the Grinch that stole Israel's Christmas

Operators like www.TouristIsrael.com are offering a Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and Bethlehem tour on December 24.

 YMCA's lit-up Christmas tree in Jerusalem. (photo credit: JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA)
YMCA's lit-up Christmas tree in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA)

While Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman inaugurated the Christmas holiday season on Monday (December 4) with an impressive fireworks display in Manger Square and the illumination of the traditional tree there capped with a golden star, residents of the city’s three refugee camps – Aida, Dehaishe and Jibrin, also known as Azza Camp – have been protesting daily against the Palestinian Authority. 

While the protests, including burning tires and blocking roads, are aimed at gaining the release of several Palestinians arrested by the PA security forces for waving banners of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) during the funeral last month of Amjad Abu Sultan, they also threaten to ruin the Christmas festivities in the little town where Mary gave birth to Jesus some 2,000 years ago.

Factor in Israel’s two-week ban on foreign tourists imposed after the Omicron variant was discovered, extended 10 more days to December 22, and it looks increasingly like the Grinch will again steal Christmas this year in Bethlehem – just like last year’s holiday season proved to be a COVID-19 catastrophe.

Paradoxically, the absence of overseas tourists means Bethlehem is increasingly relying on local visitors – notwithstanding that it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Area A of the West Bank.

Operators like www.TouristIsrael.com are offering a Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and Bethlehem tour on December 24. Beginning in the early afternoon, pilgrims will drive past Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, Kidron Valley and Old City walls before heading to Bethlehem. Following a festive dinner, celebrants will watch Midnight Mass at the Church of St. Catharine (adjoining the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Basilica of the Nativity built above the grotto where Jesus was born) on the huge screen set up in Manger Square. But with so few foreign guests, it may be possible to enter the Roman Catholic church – an all but impossible ticket to get hold of in normal times.

 Santa's house (credit: GIL ZOHAR) Santa's house (credit: GIL ZOHAR)

So thanks, you Xmas grinches.

While Jerusalem is more associated with the death of Jesus at Easter than the birth of the Christian savior in a manger 10 km. to the south, Christians in Israel’s capital also turn the city into a colorful and joyous seasonal celebration. Advent, the period leading up to Christmas which started on November 28, was marked the evening before by a pilgrimage procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by the Roman Catholic Custos of the Holy Land.

The Old City’s Christian Quarter is decorated with festive lights. Not to be missed is the completely over-the-top Ho Ho Holyland! celebration put on nightly from 5 to 8 p.m., until December 31 by Issa Anis Kassissieh – the world’s only Father Christmas who rides a camel rather than driving the famous six-reindeer sleigh – at his home in an alleyway in the Christian Quarter. From the Jaffa, or New Gate, just ask anyone how to get there.

A former basketball player, Issa – whose name in Arabic means Jesus – has been the official ambassador of the Holy Land Santa for six years, and is a graduate of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan. This year he launched the holiday season by kayaking with a Christmas tree at Kursi in the Golan Heights.

Slightly more conventional, but still great fun, the celebrations at the YMCA on King David Street offer Jerusalem’s most impressive decorations and the Christmas Eve concert on December 24 featuring various musical ensembles.

But if you’re really serious about experiencing Christmas without flying to the red countries of Europe, I recommend visiting Nazareth – the Lower Galilee city with the largest Christian community in Israel composed of Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, Baptists, Maronites and Anglicans.

At a press conference on Wednesday (December 8), the city’s ebullient Mayor Ali Salam extolled Christmas in the place where the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary she would give birth to a son.

“Christians and Muslims are living together – one home, one family,” he said of his city of 100,000, one third of whom are Christians. “We will be the bridge for peace,” he promised, inviting all Israelis to join in the festivities.

As in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, city officials are hopeful internal tourists will replace those unable to visit from abroad.

 FR. SIMAAN BAJJALI, head of Nazareth’s 20,000-strong Greek Orthodox community.  (credit: GIL ZOHAR) FR. SIMAAN BAJJALI, head of Nazareth’s 20,000-strong Greek Orthodox community. (credit: GIL ZOHAR)

THE CELEBRATIONS began December 1 with the illuminating of the 25-m.-high Christmas tree, imported from China and covered with a dazzling array of LED lights. That towering evergreen – the tallest in the Middle East – stands near the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in the historic city center. Two weeks later on December 14, Nazareth’s Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox community unveiled its own smaller but still impressive tannenbaum by Mary’s Well. And on Sunday (December 12), President Isaac Herzog visited for a tour and a briefing on the Xmas preparations. He visited the COVID ward at the historic EMMS Nazareth Hospital on Wadi el Jowani Street, also known as the Scottish Hospital and the English Hospital, which was established in 1861 by Dr. Kaloost Vartan and the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society.

Jesus’s hometown boasts several Christmas venues. For the first time, the city’s youth have created an illuminated pathway marked by some 1.5 million lights leading to the Mount of Precipice. According to Luke 4:29-30, Nazareth’s Jews, not accepting Jesus as Messiah, tried to throw him off the cliff, but “he passed through the midst of them and went away” en route to Capernaum on Lake Tiberias.

 ISSA ANIS KASSISSIEH, aka Father Christmas, rides a festive camel at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, December 2020.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) ISSA ANIS KASSISSIEH, aka Father Christmas, rides a festive camel at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, December 2020. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Not to be missed was the Christmas Market on December 11 at Mary’s Well Square, and the nightly Christmas Fair at St. Anthony’s Parish Hall which began the next day which includes an adorable Santa’s House and evening concerts. The highlight will be Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite performed by 100 singers and dancers nightly from December 16-21, put on by Nazareth’s Christmas Parade Association.

The nonprofit group has been organizing the city’s annual Christmas parade since 1983. On December 24 at 3 p.m. some 2,000 Boy Scouts, choir members and other youth groups will march 3 km. down Pope Paul VI Street from Mary’s Well to Casa Nova by the Basilica of the Annunciation, followed by fireworks at 5:30 p.m.

On New Year’s Eve, a midnight light show and fireworks display will light up the Basilica of Jesus the Adolescent, also simply known as the Salesian Church, located on the highest hill on the west side of the Old City.

The Christmas celebrations continue on January 6-7 in the New Year, explained Father Simaan Bajjali of Nazareth’s Orthodox Annunciation Church, which has 20,000 congregants.

“I am doing my best to make this year’s celebrations a success,” promised Mayor Salam. “Visitors will feel safe, as if they were in their own home.”

Coronavirus? Bah, humbug. 

The writer is a licensed tour guide based in Jerusalem. Born in Toronto, prior to moving to Israel he suffered from the seasonal malady affecting some Jews of Santa Claus-trophobia. Living here, he has come to appreciate that all religions have beauty.