Advent is upon us! Even though the days are getting shorter, the atmosphere is becoming more festive in Jerusalem as both Jews and Christians get ready to celebrate their respective festival of lights. This year, Hanukkah and Christmas coincide, with the celebration of the birth of Christ falling right in the middle of the week of the Jewish holiday.
Soon Jews will be lighting their hanukkiah while recalling God’s Providence and faithfulness (then as now!) at a time of great need in the history of the Jewish nation. At the same time, Christians will commemorate and celebrate the moment when “the true Light which gives light to every man” came into the world (John 1:9).
If Advent is a non-event in Jewish Western Jerusalem, it is unmistakable in the Old City, where shops of Christmas decorations and artifacts have opened and are already in full swing. Every day, coming out of my home in the Christian Quarter, I am “greeted” by several life-sized Santa Clauses, including a large inflatable one standing alongside another one playing Christmas carols on the saxophone.
Beyond the inevitable Christmas commercialism, the Christian communities are also in full gear in preparing the various Christmas events and celebrations.
As always, the world’s focus of attention will be on Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve, at 2:30 pm, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, will arrive at Manger Square and make his solemn entry into the Basilica of the Nativity. There will be effervescence and excitement throughout the afternoon and evening in anticipation of the festive Midnight Mass that will take place in St. Catherine’s Church (the Catholic part of the Basilica).
At the same time, low Masses in various languages will take place throughout the night in the tiny Manger Grotto, believed to be the actual spot where Jesus was born.
Pilgrims are advised that access to these events will not be easy: tickets are required and there will be tight security (Midnight Mass is usually attended by top Palestinian dignitaries and politicians).
For those looking for a more accessible, somewhat calmer and more charming alternative to the frenzy in Bethlehem, celebrating the night of Christmas at Shepherd’s Field in nearby Beit Sahour is highly recommended. This site is believed to be the place where, according to the Gospel of Luke (2:8-15), the angel appeared to the shepherds and announced to them the birth of the Savior in the City of David.
Holy Masses will be celebrated there in all languages throughout the night, in the various grottoes and chapels lying under the same open sky from which the angel appeared to the shepherds more than 2,000 years ago.
Those staying in Jerusalem will also have plenty of options as to where to go – though for many their choice will be determined by the language they speak.
For English speakers, the Notre Dame Center, located just outside of the Old City’s New Gate, is a popular destination. As is the tradition, Midnight Mass will be preceded by a half hour of Christmas carols (beginning at 11:30), sung by various groups and choirs from their community. The event will take place in their conference auditorium because the regular chapel is not large enough to accommodate all the pilgrims, local Christians, and many Israeli visitors who will also want to share in a taste of the Christmas celebrations.
Another popular destination is the Dormition Abbey, rising majestically on Mount Zion on the southwestern corner of the Old City. The fact that the Midnight Mass there is always packed with curious Israelis is particularly remarkable considering the fact that the liturgy is almost entirely celebrated in German. The Benedictine Monks have gotten so used to their faithful Israeli visitors that they now integrate into the evening a good number of explanations in Hebrew for them.
On the northern side of the Old City, near Damascus Gate, St. Stephen’s Basilica (on the premises of the École Biblique) is the rallying point for the French Speakers. Here, Christmas Eve Mass is anticipated at 9:30 pm, celebrated with great dignity and beauty by the French Dominicans.
On the Protestant side, at Christ Church, near Jaffa Gate, visitors can look forward to warm hospitality beginning already at 6 pm in the courtyard with coffee, refreshments and biscuits, along with some carol singing and time for fellowship and discussion. This will last until the Christmas service at 10:30 in the church, expected to last until well after midnight.
These options are only a small sample of the many celebrations that will take place on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and Jerusalem (click here for the full schedule of events). With Masses, services and celebrations occurring at all times throughout the evening and night, those armed with enough strength and courage to face the crowds might want to try some “Christmas Service hopping,” going from place to place to experience as many facets as possible of Christmas in the Holy Land.
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Ariel Ben Ami was born in Canada and is currently a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is fascinated by the Jewish roots of Christianity and enjoys writing about biblical and theological topics. He is the founder and director of Catholics for Israel, a lay apostolate dedicated to building bridges and fostering reconciliation between Israel and the Church.