Fes­tive sea­son in Jerusalem and Beth­le­hem

Visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem is a must for every trip across Israel and the Palestinian territories. These cities appear especially amazing during religious festivities. In this blog, I bring you with me to discover them during Hanukkah and Christmas!

View of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.
View of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Photo: private

This text was published on 9 January 2023 and reflects the situation at that time. The war in the Middle East has fundamentally changed the situation. Please note the current travel warnings of the Federal Foreign Office.

You might be surprised to find out that in Israel, there is not a real ‘winter break’ at university. In fact, Christmas is celebrated by only about 2 percent of the population. And New Year? Well, the Jewish New Year is on 15 September! Still, classes were suspended on 25 December, on occasion of the religious festivity of Hanukkah. Incredibly, in 2022, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights roughly coincided with the Christmas holidays. I had a perfect long weekend available to travel across the country! And I spent it doing what I had deliberately put off many times in anticipation of this overlap of Christian and Jewish celebrations: visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: private

Hanukkah and Christmas in the Holy City

My experience in Jerusalem was breathtaking: I had the chance to visit sites of which I heard throughout my entire life. I arrived in the Holy City on Friday, 23 December. My accommodation was located on the Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem, so I had to climb a little hill to enter the Old City. As I was climbing, I heard the muezzin sing, calling the believers to prayer. Just a few minutes later, I found myself in a throng of people who - their prayer carpets over their shoulders - were rushing towards the beautiful mosque of Al-Aqsa.

I followed the crowd to the Damascus Gate. I passed it, and was now in the big Souk (market) of the Muslim quarter. The Old City is in fact divided in four quarters. It was fun to walk through the Muslim one, without any decorations, to get to the Christian and Armenian districts, adorned with garlands and Christmas trees, ending up in the Jewish neighbourhood, where on the floor laid little Hanukkah menorahs for children to light.

I went straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As I entered, I immediately saw many pilgrims knelt down praying on the Stone of Anointing. However, unfortunately, the large crowd and the strict rules made the experience less spiritual than I had supposed it would be. For example, while I was in the queue to enter the church, a group of girls started singing amazing religious chants; however, they were soon hushed by some priests imposing silence.

Celebrations of Hanukkah's Shabbat at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.
Celebrations of Hanukkah's Shabbat at the Western Wall, Jerusalem. Photo: private

Celebration at the Western Wall

Another crucial stop during my stay was the Western Wall. I arrived there just before dusk, planning to attend the celebrations of Shabbat. Again, while accessing the place of prayer, I found myself in a huge crowd pushing towards the main entrance. Most of the people were Orthodox Jews: you could easily recognize them by their traditional clothes, their long beards and curls. A Hanukkah nine-branch menorah shone in front of the imposing wall.

Here, the women and men celebrate separately: a barrier divides the space dedicated to each of the sexes. After sunset, which marks the beginning of Shabbat, the men began to sing joyful praises to God. Some sang on their own; others in groups; a few danced in circles. It was so beautiful that I was moved watching them from afar. As for the women’s section, which I was allowed to enter, it was much quieter.

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Photo: private

Next stop: Bethlehem!

The next day, Christmas Eve, I took a bus headed to Bethlehem, in the West Bank. On paper, the trip is half an hour; but in reality, it took me three times as long to get to my destination. When I finally got off the bus, I realized that the city was full of soldiers, merchants and pilgrims come to spend Christmas in the supposed birthplace of Jesus. The presence of so many soldiers initially unsettled me a little. However, I soon realized that the general mood was of celebration. I later learnt that the high military presence was due to Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas attending part of the midnight Mass in the Basilica of the Nativity.

To witness the whole service, one should have booked a ticket months in advance. As I hadn’t done so, I met with some friends. We still wanted to try and get into the church: in fact, we were told that we would be allowed in once Abbas had left. So, we waited... and managed to see the last 15 minutes of the Mass. People from all over the world gathered in the nave. It was very crowded and maybe a bit too ‘touristy’ for my taste; but I was really happy to be there. The next morning, all the soldiers had left.

Finally, a word of advice

I had an amazing time. Visiting those two cities during this period of the year was absolutely unique. There is just one ‘must’ if you consider making such an experience yourself: it is of paramount importance that you bring your personal documents with you. Not only because the situation in Jerusalem might be tense, but also and foremost because the Israeli Defence Forces often carry out passport and visa checks of those entering Israel from the Palestinian territories.

(Published 9 January 2023)