Christmas in Jerusalem coincides with the Jewish festival Hanukkah which is very similar to Christmas in its festive spirit. Christmas is celebrated three times in a year in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This is because the Russian Church still follows the Julian calendar according to which the festival falls on January 7 (in the Gregorian calendar). The Western Church and the Russian Orthodox Church celebrate it on December 25 itself. The Armenian Church celebrates the festival on January 6 according to the Julian calendar which corresponds to January 19 as per the Gregorian calendar. There are spectacular processions held on each of the days to mark the festive spirit.
Celebration and SignificanceJesus was born in Bethlehem but was brought to Jerusalem soon after. The Last Supper of Jesus with his Apostles took place on Mount Zion. He was captured in Gethsemane in Jerusalem. It is the place where Jesus was crucified and where he resurrected after three days. The Christians hold all these places and many other places where Jesus imparted his teachings as sacred. A number of churches can be seen in many places where he traveled on foot and preached to the people. During Christmas, the people tour these places and relive the whole experience of centuries ago.
One of the most important churches to visit during Christmas is the Holy Sepulcher church which was built in fourth century AD and rebuilt in 1099. It is situated on the Calvary hills on the spot where Jesus was crucified. Other important sites include the Mary’s Tomb, Church of John the Baptist, the Chapel of Flagellation and the Grotto of the Apostles. All these places receive millions of visitors from around the world to pay homage to Jesus Christ during Christmas. The Via Dolorosa or the Way of Sufferings, the route which Jesus walked before he was condemned and crucified is also one of the most important sites here. People are known to carry the cross of Christ over their shoulders making the Christmas air even more special.
All these places have Christmas services and celebrations with great pomp and show. Midnight masses are held at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center and The Holy Sepulchre. A grand mass takes place at the Saint James Church in Jerusalem where there is no electricity and the church is entirely lit by colorful oil lamps which hang in the square stone basilica.
On Christmas Eve, the Latin Patriarch accompanied by priests and a marching band make a procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It continues to Bethlehem’s Star Street and Manger Square to the Nativity Grotto located inside the Church of the nativity. The festivities go on for an entire day until the Midnight Mass with people gathered on the streets outside the churches to celebrate the occasion. A liturgical concert takes place at the Tower of David in the Old City.
The Christian MinorityToday the Christian population in Jerusalem is a distinct minority and settled in the Christian and the Armenian Quarter. The Christian Quarter has a market near the Jaffa Gate which sells decorations, crafts, cookies and candies for the festival. However, even today, most of the preparations of food and decorations are done at home. There is singing, dancing and interesting events happening during the entire period at the Jaffa Gate. Christmas lights are seen in the Christian Quarter which is a magnificent display of its kind. Though the celebration of Christmas is not as extravagant as in the Western world with Santa Claus and the dancing and singing, the Christian community in Jerusalem take this opportunity to deeply reflect on the real meaning and significance of the festival. People deck their living rooms with Arizona Cypress trees. These trees are especially raised and curated for the occasion.
Masses, services and celebrations happen at almost every church with full excitement and effervescence. People usually engage in a Christmas Service Hopping from one place to another. People cook the "Traditional Christmas Turkey" with turkey stuffing, cranberry, chestnuts and served with Christmas flavored seasonal vegetables. There is Christmas pudding for dessert.
The younger population of Jerusalem celebrate the festival in their own westernized way. Some of the more secular bars of the city hold parties where the youth gathers for a night of drinking and dancing.
Christmas is a unique time in Jerusalem as it is literally the place where it all first began . Christmas may be getting increasingly commercialized in other places. However, Jerusalem is one place where the festival has tried to retain its authenticity and meaningfulness. Christians form other parts of the world believe that they must visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land at least once in their lifetime during Christmas.