Christmas in the Holy Land

December 2014 Catholic Herald

NOTEBOOK, Christmas Double Issue,

Christmas in the Holy Land is an irresistible idea to most Catholics. But if you arrived in Jerusalem today you’d hardly know it was Christmas time. Despite Jerusalem being the city of Christianity’s birth, the place where early Christians started a new religion, its major festival isn’t officially acknowledged by the Israeli government with any significant gestures. Indeed, the shunning of Christmas caused a ruckus last year when an Arab Christian member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), Hanna Swaid, made a request to put up a Christmas tree near the entrance to the parliament building. He was told to keep it in his office. This year this former lecturer at Reading University didn’t ask.

One friend grumbled that she couldn’t buy a chocolate Santa for love nor money in Jerusalem: “I’ve tried supermarket after supermarket. It’s the same with Christmas cakes, Christmas puddings and mince pies. I’ve had to make my own. It’s a marginalisation of Christianity in its birthplace.” There is, though, one outlet selling Christmas decorations, crafts and chocolates on the Via Dolorosa, run by the Catholic Church in aid of the local scouts. Other Christian gestures include a tree outside the YMCA, decorations in the Christian quarter in the Old City, church-related Nativity displays and special Masses and carol services, but these are just one dimension of Christmas. Christmas is also about generosity and families, as well as having houses, buildings, trees, shop windows and roads festooned with Christmas lights to reflect the festive mood. Alas, there’s little official manifestation of Christmas in Jerusalem. But the municipality always puts up a Christmas tree and a little tinsel at Jaffa Gate and the Jewish National Fund always sells a limited number of trees thinned from the national forests to churches, monasteries, convents, diplomats and foreign journalists for around £20.

Even the legendary King David Hotel, which caters to an international clientele, doesn’t display a tree – not even a sparkly plastic token of one hidden in a corner. The comment I heard more than a few times was that if there was one on show a hotel wouldn’t be kosher. Despite a supreme court ruling that kosher certificates to hotels shouldn’t be dependent on unrelated matters, there’s still a feeling that Christmas trees, as non-Jewish symbols, are not kosher.

Christmas is more obvious in East Jerusalem, home to the majority of Jerusalem’s Arabs. At the world-famous landmark of East Jerusalem, the American Colony Hotel, guests are greeted by one tall Christmas tree in the lobby and another in the dining room ready for the gala Christmas Eve dinner. The Golden Walls Hotel near Damascus Gate also displays a decorated tree, as do others nearby. There are even a few shops selling tinselly decorations.

In contrast to Jerusalem and Israel, where Christmas Day is an ordinary working day, in Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories it’s a public holiday. Like Al-Mawlid, the birthday of Mohammed, Christmas Day is one of the eight national Palestinian holidays. It’s the same in Jordan. As in other Muslim countries, Jesus is recognised as a prophet. After all, the Virgin Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist are all described in Chapter 19 of the Koran.

A further gesture by the Palestinians to Christians is seen at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Like the late Yasser Arafat, President Mahmoud Abbas, a devout Muslim, attends the Midnight Mass, as do other government officials. Interestingly, this acknowledgement of Christmas is despite there being fewer Arab Christians in the Palestinian territories than in Israel. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 160,000 Christians (80 per cent of whom are Arabs) make up two per cent of Israel’s population of 8.1 million. In the Palestinian territories there are only an estimated 50,000 Christians, mostly in the West Bank, with about 3,000 in the Gaza Strip.

One of the many reasons given as to why a large number of Jews are indifferent to Christmas in Israel is that the celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual. There’s only one birthday mentioned in the Old Testament, that of Pharaoh (Gn 40:20). And the sole birthday in the New Testament is Herod’s. An additional explanation given about the lack of Christmas trees is that it’s forbidden for a Jew to be present in a place where idol worship is being conducted. But similar injunctions are given to Muslims and Christians. Christmas trees are mostly seen as a harmless festive tradition. Unlike the Cross, they’re not generally regarded as religious symbols.

But in early December this year, a Christmas tree again showed just how political they can be in the Holy Land. In the port city of Acre, which has a mixed Arab and Jewish population, the municipality put up a tree requested by an Arab Christian town councillor. However, the local chief rabbi complained that according to Jewish law there’s no place for Christian symbols in the city. Yet, despite the fuss it has, so far, remained.