Tour Israel: Christmas in Nazareth

We have our very own Middle Eastern style of Christmas right here at home in towns like Nazareth.

Christmas decorations (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Christmas decorations
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Believe it or not, you don’t need to take a plane to Europe to experience Christmas. We have our very own Middle Eastern style of Christmas right here at home in towns like Nazareth.
For years Nazareth has been known for its extensive and ornate Christmas market, and BIG Fashion Mall has recently joined the party (53 Tawfiq Zayed Street, Nazareth).
I know it’s a bit strange to talk about how amazing Christmas celebrations at an Israeli mall are, but you’ll have to trust me on this one – it really is worth your while. The three-story shopping center is decked out with all the Christmas holiday trappings and the outside pavilion is hung with chains of lights. There’s even a Santa Claus (until Christmas, that is) there waiting for kids to come sit on his lap so he can give them presents.
There’s a train that runs throughout the mall for the kids to ride on, and a huge tent is situated at the mall entrance where shoppers can buy ornaments, tree accessories, and souvenirs. A Christmas tree has even been set up at the local Café Café, which will be serving a traditional Middle Eastern Christmas meal (pre-registration required).
Before you leave the mall to walk around the older, more traditional parts of Nazareth, I recommend stopping for a visit at the Fachorat Musmar Pottery workshop, the oldest ceramic factory in the city. If pottery interests you, you will love this place, where each and every plate and cup is made by hand on an old-fashioned pottery wheel. The factory is run by Bassem, whose grandfather began working as a potter when he was just a boy, and later traveled to Germany to further his studies. Bassem is proud to continue this family tradition.
Moreover, Bassem feels as if he is creating art from his natural surroundings – water and clay. He makes one-of-a-kind water pitchers in the ancient Nabatean style that are able to keep water cool. Visitors can tour the ceramic factory and learn about all the different stages of production, watch how the tools are used and then observe how the ceramic pieces are heated in a special old kiln.
Namsawi (next to the square). Telephone: (04) 657- 5996.
Another interesting factory to visit is a famous halva and tehina plant run by Ali Nasser, which has been in operation for more than four decades. Nasser, working alongside his many sons and daughters, imports sesame from Africa, from which he makes halva and tehina, in addition to sesame-based sweets, sugared almonds and sweet humus.
Visitors can watch as the sesame seeds are peeled, roasted and finally ground.
4000 Street, Nazareth. Telephone: (04) 655-3233.
After you’ve had your fill of all the amazing sesame treats, it’s time to move on to the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.
The church is located next to Spring Square and was built 900 years ago on the ruins of a number of smaller churches. Inside there is a small spring, where, according to legend, Mary conceived Jesus. Many people believe that the water flowing in the spring is holy and has a supernatural power to cure barrenness. As a result, women flock to this pilgrimage site from all over the world.
Throughout the interior of the church, you can see inscriptions in Greek engraved into the wood, which have remained intact for centuries. A few that were damaged were repaired in 2010.
A lovely mosaic from the Byzantine period was discovered outside the church. Archeological excavations are continuously being carried out on church grounds, and remains from ancient times are often found. In the pre-Christmas season, tables are set up outside the church where guests can buy ornaments and Christmas presents. Of course, a huge Christmas tree stands in the courtyard, which adds to the festive atmosphere.
Since Nazareth is one of Israel’s top tourist locations, there are plenty of places to eat. Some are excellent, others less so.
One of my favorites is Divan Al Saraya, a small intimate restaurant that is a little different from many of the other more touristy places. Abu Ashraf, the owner, welcomes every person who comes to dine in his restaurant, and tells them how he cooks all his food out of love, and not to make a living.
As soon as you walk inside, you feel like you’ve entered a parallel universe where time holds no importance.
It’s designed like a museum of antiquities, with innumerable intriguing and rare items that Abu Ashraf has collected through the years, such as antique musical instruments, an old scale, and statuettes.
Abu Ashraf loves showing off these items to his guests.
Old City (near White Mosque). Telephone: (04) 657- 8697.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.