Christmas in Israel: A tour in Israel's largest Christian community

This week we will describe interesting Christian events and sites all over the city of Nazareth, which is home to Israel’s largest Christian community. 

 BIG FASHION shopping mall makes merry. (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
BIG FASHION shopping mall makes merry.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)

Last week, we discussed how every year in December, Nazareth becomes a focus for Israelis for two weeks, when the northern city is transformed by colorful lights, nativity sets and Christmas trees in preparation for visits by Israeli and foreign tourists alike. 

Whereas last time we focused on historical sites in Nazareth’s Old City, this week we will describe interesting events and sites all over the city that is home to the country’s largest Christian community. 

Our first stop will be the city’s BIG FASHION shopping mall, which has been decorated for Christmas. Nearby, there is a wooden structure meant to be Santa’s home, which is functioning as a pop-up store. In the days before Christmas, there will also be someone walking around dressed as Santa Claus, who will be distributing presents to children. In addition, there will be a holiday fair with food stands and a host of street performances. 

But don’t fill up too much on food at the fair, as there are a number of restaurants to choose from situated on the top floor of the mall, such as Luna Bistro, which serves authentic Arabic dishes. I recommend going there really hungry, otherwise, there’s no way you’ll be able to finish all the food served to your table. The meal begins with three tasty vegan starters: a crispy endive salad with garlic and onion; a falafel sambusak with tahini and harissa; and a cauliflower dish with pomegranate sauce. 

Next, the main dishes include kubbeh and al safiha (bread topped with ground beef, tahini and pine nuts). We were so full that despite the tempting-looking desserts, we had to decline. 

 BIG FASHION shopping mall makes merry. (credit: MEITAL SHARABI) BIG FASHION shopping mall makes merry. (credit: MEITAL SHARABI)

Our next stop was Mount Precipice, which is a five-minute drive from the mall. This is one of the best spots in the country from which you can look out over the entire Galilee, especially if the air is particularly clear on that day. The mountain is 397 meters above sea level, and from this spot, you can identify Mount Carmel, Mount Gilad and Mount Tabor, the Gilboa and the Jezreel Valley. According to Christian lore, when Jesus was running away from Jews who were angry and did not accept that he was the messiah, Jesus jumped off Mount Precipice but miraculously survived. I recommend stopping for a cup of coffee at Hani’s, which is located on the site.

A Christmas tour of Nazareth in Israel

From there, I recommend driving toward Nazareth’s Old City, where you can join a guided tour and hear incredible stories about the many historical buildings and sites. Alternatively, you can meander around the narrow streets on your own. We joined a group led by licensed tour guide Itzik Litani, who leads food tours. Litani creates tailor-made tours. Tours for four individuals cost NIS 800, plus VAT. (Tours do not include the cost of food tastings, which are paid directly to the vendors.) Litani is practically a walking encyclopedia; visitors will enjoy learning from his detailed descriptions, and he loves answering people’s many questions.

Details: 077-805-0211; www.eitours.co.il.

We started our tour with Litani inside the Old City at Pilgrim’s Way and the Muscovy Compound, which is a large and impressive structure that currently functions as the city’s police headquarters. We learned an amusing anecdote about the building: Following the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, a number of European powers purchased land in the Holy Land. Russia purchased the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, as well as the Muscovy Compound in Nazareth. In the 1960s, Israel purchased this site from Russia, and the payment was made in oranges. 

From there, we continued on to Spring Square, which features an underground spring that served as the city’s main water source for several centuries. It is also called Mary’s Well, a spring located next to the Greek Orthodox Church. We were treated to a glass of spicy mulled wine at Rosemary, a restaurant run by Jasan Toma, where we took it easy for a few moments before everyone scattered into the plethora of boutiques in the area, before reconvening for the rest of the tour.

Next, we continued on to the Al Kila’i Caves (or Um al-Mugar as it’s called by locals), which according to Christian lore was a place where Jesus slept 2,000 years ago. The caves were also apparently used as a hiding place for Jews and early Christians trying to escape Roman persecution. At the entrance of the cave there is an ancient mikveh (ritual bath) and an altar. Entrance to the cave is free of charge, but guests are welcome to leave a donation that will be allocated for the upkeep of the cave. 

Time: The cave is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

By this time, your stomach has probably begun rumbling. One of my recommendations is to eat at Tishreen Bama’ayan, a fantastic fusion restaurant. We ordered the baked bryndza sheep milk cheese with a cherry tomato salad. You can also order pasta, meat and seafood dishes. 

But make sure to save room for dessert at Joz VeLoz, which is located across the street from Tishreen Bama’ayan. Their specialty is Egyptian-style kanafeh, which includes cow and goat cheese, alongside ground pistachios and almonds. They also have amazing sahlab. When you’ve finished eating, you can walk through the outdoor vegetable market and the Old City’s narrow streets. 

If you haven’t had your fill of touring Christmas sites, you can visit the ancient White Mosque, which preaches values of peace and brotherhood among people of different faiths. The mosque is open to the public, although they require that people dress in modest clothing, remove their shoes before entering, and speak quietly inside. 

The last stop will be the Greek Catholic Church of the Annunciation, which according to Christian lore was at the time a synagogue where Jesus used to pray. According to the book of Luke, this is the place where Jesus declared himself the messiah, which was not taken well by many of his fellow worshipers. Following this event, Jesus, who was 30 at the time, supposedly left Nazareth. 

Price: Entrance to the church is free, but pre-registration is required. 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.