[PHOTO_125920]What better tradition could there be for the December holiday season than a visit to Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem to get a taste of the real holiday spirit?
Whether it’s celebrating the eight-day light-filled festival of Chanukah, or marking the Christmas holiday at the very place where Christians believe Jesus was born, the magic of being together with tens of thousands of pilgrims who come to take part in the unique Holy Land winter festivities will inspire you to make this a regular tradition.
Chanukah celebrates the victory, back in 164 BCE, of the Jews over Hellenistic Greeks who wanted to suppress the Jewish faith. The Jews eventually overcame their oppressors and rekindled a menorah in the Temple, so Chanukah celebrations are full of festive light-related traditions.
[PHOTO_125744]In Jerusalem, it’s traditional for families to light the chanukiah outside the front door of their homes, so by the time the eighth and last day of the festival comes around entire neighborhoods are lit up with the soft light of wicks floating in pure oil, encased in shiny brass and glass holders.
This is the time to join one of the dozens of walking tours around the older neighborhoods at dusk, to take in the sight of families lighting their chanukiot, singing the blessings and traditional Chanukah songs and sharing the doughnuts that have become a Chanukah staple.
It’s a season filled with free concerts in the pedestrian malls and special activities for families, as crowds gather to light the huge chanukiot in every public square.
If it’s Christmas that’s drawing you to Jerusalem, there are three of them celebrated here. Different branches of the church observe Christmas on different dates, making for a prolonged season of joy. For Protestants and Roman Catholics December 25 is Christmas. The Greek Syrian and other Orthodox denominations observe the holiday on January 7 and the Armenians follow up with a January 18 observance of Christmas.
On December 24, Christmas Eve, catch the colorful procession of the Latin Patriarch and his entourage as they travel between Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity. All along the route, the Jerusalem Municipality strings blue and white Christmas lights.
That night in Manger Square - some 15 minutes from Jerusalem - world media is focused on the Church where the Patriarch will conduct Midnight Mass. If you can’t get into the church, the mass is broadcast to the crowds from all over the world who gather in the Square. Buses leave from the main churches in Jerusalem and include tickets to some of the main events. They’ll make a stop at the YMCA Christmas Service in Shepherds’ Fields in English; take in a Lutheran service in English and German and end up at the Church of the Nativity around 9 p.m for Christmas carols in English and Arabic.
In Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the place to be for Midnight Mass and during Christmas day, as the ancient stones of this massive church resonate with the prayers and song of the faithful.
Travelers have been coming to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to mark the Jewish and Christian winter holidays for centuries–now it’s your turn to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land part of your holiday tradition.