Christmas 2021: what to expect in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth

There is currently a ban on foreign visitors due to coronavirus but many events will be broadcast online

A man cleans at the Church of the Nativity on November 27, the first day of the Christmas season's festivities, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. EPA
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Christmas celebrations are back in the Holy Land after being curtailed by coronavirus last year with festivities happening across Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth.

The detection of the Omicron variant has temporarily stopped Israelis and Palestinians welcoming tourists, since a two-week ban on foreign visitors came into force on Monday.

If the border restrictions are not lifted in time for Christmas, then worshippers abroad can watch services online, while residents have a rare opportunity to enjoy the festive season without crowds.

Bethlehem

Christian pilgrims are drawn to Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, to see the place where they believe Jesus was born. A grotto within the Church of the Nativity marks the precise location, according to worshippers, and is an important pilgrimage site.

A Christmas tree rises above the church on the square outside, topped with a golden star. Its lights will be switched on during a ceremony on December 4, which is open to all.

The church itself hosts numerous services in the run-up to Christmas, with midnight mass on December 24 usually drawing large numbers. After attendance at the ceremony was strictly limited last year, the municipality said this month that visitors from outside Bethlehem would be welcome.

Artisans will gather in Bethlehem to sell their wares at the Christmas market, from December 2 to December 12.

Sister Eliana, a French Catholic nun of the Little Sisters of Jesus, shapes clay figurines for sale in Bethlehem. AFP

Jerusalem

While Jerusalem is at the heart of Easter events as the place where churchgoers believe Jesus was crucified, the city plays second fiddle to Bethlehem at Christmas.

Advent, the period leading up to Christmas and which started on November 28, was marked the evening before by a pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by the Custos of the Holy Land.

Although attention is turned to the West Bank city, the religious holiday nonetheless remains important to residents of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. Christmas decorations have been strung up, while the neighbourhood’s scout group is expected to hold a parade later in the month.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, known as the crucifixion site, clergymen are due to hold a private midnight mass on December 24.

There are public celebrations at the YMCA building, which has perhaps the city’s most impressive decorations, for a Christmas Eve concert featuring various musical ensembles.

epa06401137 A Palestinian dressed in a Santa Claus costume riding a camel next to the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, 21 December 2017. In Jerusalem and in the neighbouring city of Bethlehem a variety of events such as Christmas Markets, concerts and carols in many churches and places are planned over the Christmas holidays with organizers expecting thousands of pilgrims to celebrate at the historic Christian sites.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN

Nazareth

Not to be forgotten, residents in Jesus’s home town claim to have the tallest Christmas tree in the Middle East. The tree’s lights are switched on on December 1.

The Arab-Israeli city, whose residents are also known as Palestinian citizens of Israel, sits north of the West Bank and is the gateway to the northern Galilee region.

During December there are Christmas-themed tours through Nazareth, which has a charming Old City, and a festive market which runs until December 11.

The festivities culminate on Christmas Eve, with a parade through the city centre and a fireworks display. Midnight mass will be celebrated at the Church of the Annunciation, where Christians believe an angel told Mary she would give birth to the son of God.

Mental health ahead of a corona Christmas in Nazareth. Rosie Scammell for The National
Updated: December 01, 2021, 2:30 AM
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