It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Yuletide celebrations are under way in Jaffa, but the Palestinian Authority downplays festivities in Bethlehem.

Jaffa adorned in shades of evergreen (photo credit: GOISRAEL)
Jaffa adorned in shades of evergreen
(photo credit: GOISRAEL)
While Christmas in Tel Aviv – the world’s first Jewish city – may seem like an oxymoron, the place has a real Yuletide spirit for those who know where to look.
Santa Claus has arrived at many stores along the Naveh Sha’anan pedestrian mall near Tel Aviv’s old bus station, which cater to Filipinos and other foreign workers. The Christmas paraphernalia for sale includes traditional East Asian holiday delicacies such as dyed eggs. Business is brisk at the Kingdom of Pork on Tzemah David Street beside the new central bus station.
It’s in the nearby ancient port city of Jaffa that the main Christmas celebrations take place. Midnight mass services were held at the numerous churches in the area on December 24, including an English service at the Beit Immanuel Lutheran Church on Auerbach Street in the former American/German Colony.
Arab Christians were set to gather on December 22 for a tree lighting and the singing of carols at Andromeda Square in Jaffa. As the crowd started the countdown for the lighting of the 15-meter-high conifer, a burst of fireworks was set to emblazon the night (but more on that later). In preparation, festive lights were strung along Yefet Street between Louis Pasteur and Yehuda Meragusa Streets.
Adding to the holiday spirit, men dressed up as Santa Claus will ring their bells and greet eager children and their parents. Greek Orthodox Christian leaders will convey messages of peace and unity to the crowd, with many encouraging harmony among the three major religions in the Holy Land.
“I think that in a multicultural multireligious town like Jaffa, we do feel Christmas as we feel Ramadan and Hanukka and all these other holidays,” says Ami Katz, director of the Governors of Jaffa.
One Orthodox leader asserts, “Via this opportunity, we will see the unity among Jews, Muslims and Christians.”
George Mansour, a leader of the Greek Orthodox Scouts of Jaffa, notes of Jaffa’s Christmas tree, which was provided by the KKL/JNF, “We took the idea from Nazareth, Haifa and Bethlehem. It’s the same idea, but we brought it over here for the Christian community of Jaffa; it cost $15,000.”
Adding to the merry-making, the first-ever Christmas market opened in November, running until January at Jaffa Port. (While Catholics and Protestants observe Christmas on December 25, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday on January 6.) The market includes dozens of stalls packed with fresh local produce such as olive oil and fruits and vegetables straight from the farms, unique delicacies from various cooks and chefs, and winter holiday goods for all faiths.
While largely Jewish Israel promotes Christian identity, a grinch tried to steal Christmas in the Palestinian Authority. The PA has asked the Bethlehem Municipality to foster more somber Christmas celebrations this year amid escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis, the Religion News Service reports.
Hanna Amireh, who heads a committee on churches in the West Bank, confirms that the PA has requested “a certain decrease” in festivities following the deaths of dozens of Palestinians in the unrest since mid-September, killed during clashes with Israeli forces or carrying out terrorist attacks.
Amireh says the PA asked Vera Baboun – the mayor of Bethlehem, where official Palestinian celebrations of Christmas are held – not to set off fireworks on Christmas Eve and to reduce the holiday lights and decorations that traditionally adorn Star Street and Manger Square.
Although Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah will light the towering Christmas tree in front of the Church of the Nativity, he will not participate in a festive post-lighting dinner hosted by the Bethlehem Municipality, Amireh says. The annual December 25 parade, which includes the heads of churches and bagpipe-keening Palestinian boy scouts, will take place as usual.
News of the limitations upset the tiny community of Palestinian Christians, who comprise less than two percent of the population in the West Bank.
“I’m truly disappointed,” Ekram Juha, director of the Bethlehem Mayor’s Office, says of the Palestinian Authority’s plans.
Juha, who describes herself as a “Christian and a believer,” says that Palestinians “have a difficult situation, but we’ve lived with this situation for many years and celebrations have gone on. This is the place where Jesus was born, and if you limit Christmas celebrations here, you are limiting something spiritual and holy. I can understand limiting celebrations elsewhere, but not here in Bethlehem.”
Michele Chabin of the RNS contributed to this article.