Christmas in the Holy Land
This year, Christmas Eve falls on the fifth night of Chanukah, providing a double dose of festive lights and goodwill toward all in the Holy Land.
From Christian pilgrims marching in the Church of the Nativity's fabled Christmas Eve procession, to Jewish families lighting chanukiyot where Chanukah events took place, Israel is a powerful symbol of continuity and faith for believers both local and foreign.
In Israel’s so-called “mixed” cities, Israeli Christians and Jews observe Christmas and Chanukah, respectively, in the same town squares. Boston’s sister city, Haifa, is a particularly strong model of co-existence and cooperation.
Each December, Haifa Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths organize the vibrant “Holiday of Holidays” festival to mark the shared season of winter celebrations. Through music, performance art and shared public space, participants come together to advance an atmosphere of religious pluralism that exists nowhere else in the Middle East.
In the coming weeks, CJP will send almost 500 local college students on campus-based Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. During these ten-day, immersive trips to Israel, some groups will participate in a unique identity mural project organized for them in Haifa’s “mixed” Wadi Nisnas neighborhood.
With more than one-third of Birthright participants coming from interfaith families, the exploration of Christian connections to the Holy Land alongside students’ Jewish discoveries can be both unexpected and deeply moving. Sponsored by the Boston-Haifa Connection, hands-on, personalized activities like the identity mural are often participants' favorite part of the trip.
For Christian pilgrims to Israel, two regions almost always figure on the itinerary: the Jerusalem area and the Galilee.
Just south of Jerusalem sits Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus represented around the world through Nativity scenes and songs about that starry night 2,000 years ago. As a Palestinian city with a Muslim majority, one should not expect to find mention of Chanukah or its symbols in this sometimes tense area.
Not far from Bethlehem, the Old City of Jerusalem's "Via Dolorosa" trail leads pilgrims through Jesus's final journey before the Crucifixion. The trail's most fabled site is the many-domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus was buried. The chuch has been a major pilgrimage site since the 4th century. Here in the storied Old City, believers of all faiths cross each other’s paths as effortlessly sounds of religious chants mix in the sweet Jerusalem air.
An hour's drive north from Jerusalem, pilgrims find the hills of Lower Galilee, home to Jesus's hometown of Nazareth and many sites connected to his ministry.
Particularly charming are the small, colorful churches along the Sea of Galilee's western shore, marking New Testament events and miracles associated with Jesus and his disciples. For the typical Jewish visitor or Birthright participant, tour buses filled with Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia are a powerful reminder of the region’s centrality to people around the world.
The size of New Jersey, Israel boasts a stunning array of faith communities as well as legal religious protections unparalleled in the Middle East. There is no better time of year than Christmas to obtain a sense of this special atmosphere and the hope it radiates within a region where religion is too often divisive and strife-inducing.