Mass celebrations

The Old City comes alive for Christmas.

Christian Quarter, Jerusalem_521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Christian Quarter, Jerusalem_521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Jamil Samara is busy cutting a woman’s hair. He straightens the wet, dark strands between his fingers and then snips them. Careful and calm, he is the center of a whirl of activity at his St. Francis Street salon, in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
“You see all these people getting their hair cut today. We offered a very special deal for haircuts, and we are giving away gifts, like hand cream, to all the girls. There are also some services for free like eyebrows and nails. All of it for Christmas,” he says.
Samara’s salon is one of many businesses in the Old City benefiting, at least for now, from the increased tourism of the holiday season.
The Old City this Christmas eve is a buzz of activity, with diverse groups of pilgrims from France, Nigeria and the US all flowing through the narrow streets before going to church in the evening. Plastered to the door of the Catholic-run Christian Information Center near the Jaffa Gate is a list of 13 churches offering Catholic mass and 11 places where Protestants can find services. (The Orthodox, Armenian, Ethiopian and several other churches, which follow a different calendar, will celebrate Christmas in January.) This year, Christmas mass is offered in a cacophony of languages: Arabic, English, Hebrew, French, Finnish, Swedish, Danish and German. The majority of the Catholic churches offer services in Arabic or German, and the Protestants mostly in English.
Amid the rush, many pilgrims are trying to figure out where to go and what to do. A group of Christian students studying in Netanya for a year have to ask four different people for directions to Salah a-Din Street at Damascus Gate.
“We just got off the bus and we are totally lost,” says Chris, who is from Austria. His friends from Canada and Germany are trying to sort out their evening. “Three of us are thinking of going to Bethlehem for the midnight mass, and one of us is going to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer for the midnight walk to Bethlehem.”
It turns out that the Lutheran Church in the Old City, which is situated near the Holy Sepulchre, is offering a 10:30 p.m. mass and then doing a two-hour walk all the way to Bethlehem.
The priest at the door of the church, dressed all in white, seems excited as he tries to explain the process to his parishioners: “We have an Arabic mass now at 4 p.m. Then English later. If you come later, then you can join us for the walk.”
Chris, who plans to join him, isn’t too worried about the cold.
“I brought an extra jacket in my backpack,” he says.
His three friends are surprised to learn that they will need tickets to get into the mass in Bethlehem, where the Latin patriarch hosts the main Christmas celebration in the region.
The need for tickets also surprises Linda, a pilgrim from China.
“I am from Shenyang, in northern China. I came here for five days with some friends for this experience, and so far it has been wonderful,” she says, her face beaming from having just seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “I didn’t know I need tickets.
Where do I get them?” She explains that being a Christian in China is not easy. Like many Christians in the communist country, she keeps her faith quiet.
“I go to a church that isn’t really a Catholic or Protestant church. It is difficult to explain,” she says. “It is a very modern building with a cross.”
AT THE Armenian Catholic Church, some pilgrims are finishing up a meal in the dining room. Archbishop Raphael Minassian and his colleague Alex Jololian are sitting drinking tea and watching their guests come and go.
“Many people think that the Armenian Catholic Church is a breakaway church from Armenian Orthodoxy, but this is a mistake,” explains Minassian. “We represent the Armenian church that always remained with the mother [Catholic] church.”
There are about 70 Armenian Catholic families living in Jerusalem. The center of the community is the church, which owns the Third and Fourth Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. Their mass will take place at 4 p.m., followed by a ceremony at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, during which the Archbishop will stand beside the patriarch.
“This year we have fewer pilgrims coming to Jerusalem because of the financial situation in Europe and America,” says Minassian. “[And] because of the conflict, many prefer to stay away.”
Around 15 percent of the world’s Armenians are Catholic, and many reside in the US and Lebanon. The archbishop explains that he was born in Armenia and formerly served an Armenian Catholic community in Glendale, California.
Next to the Christmas tree in the church foyer is a monument to the Armenian genocide. Both Minassian and Jololian are interested in the latest spat between Turkey and France over the genocide and think that Israel should be more supportive.
“I would expect that Israel’s people, who suffered a similar situation, would understand,” says Jololian.
“Remember, it was Hitler who said, ‘Who today remembers the Armenians?’” the archbishop adds.
THE OLD City is also teeming with Israeli Jews, as Christmas eve coincides with Hanukka this year. Many schoolchildren have the week off, and their families have booked tours for Shabbat.
It seems as though the real boom for many businesses is coming more from these tourists than from the Christian pilgrims.
Abu Shukri, the famous humous restaurant, is bursting with Israelis.
“We don’t have space for single customers. If you want to eat, bring some friends. I’m totally full,” shouts one of the waiters when I inquire about a seat.
Other businesses are just as busy. At Jaffa Gate the men selling bread are speaking only in Hebrew to the people walking by, assuming that this language will get them the most business.
Among the Jewish tourists are a couple and their children from Baltimore.
“It is a wonderful experience to see how the Catholics are celebrating their holiday,” says husband Sam.
His wife agrees. “We were at the Western Wall, and now we wanted also to see the other side. I think it is important for us, as Jews, to see this other aspect as well.”
BACK AT Samara’s salon, Jamil is still working on girls’ hair.
“People here are depressed and tired [from the political situation],” he says. “We make them happy here with our hair styling.”
He does’t want the women getting their hair cut to be photographed, though.
“Some of them are good Muslim women.”
On this Christmas eve, it seems, Christians, Muslims and Jews are all enjoying the holiday season.