We absolutely love the diversity that is in Israel. There are so many different cultures each with their own unique celebrations and December is certainly the month where this is most visible. This year, we set out to learn about and experience as much as possible. I invite you to come with us as we tour the North.
They say there’s no place quite like Tsfat for Chanukah. One of the oldest cities in Israel, built atop a high mountain overlooking the entire Galilee, it is a very observant Orthodox Jewish city reminiscent of 18th century Europe in many ways. At Chanukah, the whole city is aglow, bathed in the warm candlelight of menorahs perched in every window. It is the most beautiful, quaint, romantic city! Walking tours beginning at twilight are prevalent.
The smell of latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil, hangs heavy in the air as families gather to say prayers, sing songs and light candles. Children dance and sing to street musicians’ Klezmer music. Street vendors hawk trays of piping hot chestnuts and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). There is wine tasting and liquor tasting and beautiful art exhibits to see. If you are lucky, you will come across a group of children playing dreidels (spinning tops) in one of the side alleys. Old men hand out Chanukah gelt, gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
From Tsfat, we move down the mountain to the Arab town of Rameh. Northern Israel is dotted with Arab towns: Muslim, Druze, Circassian, Bedouin and Christian. Each village has its own flavor and traditions because the people who have settled there are from different places. There is a large population of Lebanese and Syrian Christians in Rameh, which is home to Melkite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Latin Rite Catholics. On the eve of December 4, they hold grand celebrations in honor of Saint Barbara. As an aside, we used to live very close to Santa Barbara, California, and often visited the mission there, yet knew nothing about this saint.
Barbara was born in Southern Lebanon, very close to the present-day Israeli border in the early 3rd century. This beautiful young woman had a very wealthy, pagan father who kept her locked away in a high tower to preserve her maidenhood. Somehow, she would sneak away and go to a well where she met a group of Christian girls who told her about Jesus. Barbara became a secret Christian. When her father found out, he had her brutally tortured in hopes she would recant her faith. Every night her wounds would heal. Eventually her father beheaded her. There are many miracles associated with the young martyr, and she is venerated throughout the region.
The Maronite Christians of Rameh hold a Vigil Mass as evening descends on the hills and mountains of the Galilee. Afterwards, there is a candlelight procession through the streets of the village. The priest carries a gold monstrance containing a consecrated communion wafer, the Eucharist, the Body of Christ lifted up high. He walks under a canopy, the four poles held by men of the village. There is much singing in Arabic, songs about Saint ”Boorbar” that are centuries old. At the culmination of the Eucharistic processsion, a feast is put on. The main food eaten is a hot, honey-soaked, boiled wheat dish. I asked several people the significance, but it was difficult to understand, as most of the ladies I met spoke Arabic exclusively. The cooked wheat is topped with different things, mostly pomegranate arils in the shape of a cross; various nuts,pine nuts or dried coconut; raisins, dried cranberries and other fruits; candy, sprinkles, candy, sweets, and more candy,
Because there are so many immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, many people have brought their traditions with them. Many Jews married outside of their religion under the Communist regime. Many became atheists. More than a few converted or celebrated the Russian Orthodox feasts with their spouses. In Haifa, there is a large Russian Orthodox Catholic group. On December 5, they gather for the Mass and to commemorate St. Nicholas. Following the church service, the priest dresses up as the saint and distributes candy to the children. He enters the darkened church hall carrying a lit candle, representing the saint brining the light of the gospel to the people. To the adults, he gives each a tea light. Everyone gathers in a circle and sings Russian Christmas songs as each candle is lit and the room becomes brighter and brighter. That night, the children go home and leave their shoes outside the door to be filled with goodies (small candy and toys) from St. Nick.
One of the holiest places in Christendom is the ancient city of Nazareth. This is the home of Mary and Joseph and the childhood home of Jesus. It is about a half an hour drive from our home, and we understood the city goes all out during the month of December. There are huge nativity scene displays at all the entrances to the city, as well as Israel’s largest Christmas tree and annual Christmas market. Nazareth is also home to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest Roman Catholic church in the MidEast. It is built over the remains of the house where the angel, Gabriel, appeared to the virgin, Mary, to tell her of her role in bearing the Messiah. The church has large displays of madonnas (statues, plaques, paintings, mosaics) from all over the world.
In the streets outside are large Christmas markets , wooden stalls where one can buy Christmas ornaments, hand-carved olive wood nativities, arts and crafts, spices, incense, holy oils, food, and of course, Santa hats and suits. By nightfall, it gets very crowded. The place is positively dripping with pork products (pork shawarma, anyone?). There are stages set up for local choirs and dancers in native costume. What would a celebration be without parades? We were absolutely shocked to hear bagpipes!! Because the Scots were here during the British Mandate period, they passed on their love of bagpipe music to the local Arab community. In Nazareth you can see ladies dancing, pipers piping and drummers drumming. It’s all part of the hoopla with fireworks every night.
There are so many Christians here in the Galilee now, and commercialism has taken over the Holy Land. I never remember seeing the Christmas shops and markets that are now prevalent throughout the region. As more money flows into the Arab communities here, upscale European and Western style stores filled with the most gorgeous decorations line many of their streets. Last night, John and I visited two exclusively Christian villages to see their decorations: M’ilya and Fassuta, right up against the Lebanese border. The streets are heavily decorated with beautiful and tasteful white lights. M’ilya is built on the top of a mountain, an old Byzantine turned Crusader village. At its highest point is Château du Roi (see blogpost 13 July, 2021, ”Living Like Kings”) and the Greek Melkite Church. There is a huge Christmas treee and nativity scene. During the weekends, there are visits with Santa and a Christmas market with fireworks.
Last night was our first trip to Fassuta. The residents are mostly refugees to Israel escaping the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s. All are Melkite Catholics. Fassuta is absolutely the cleanest, friendliest, beautiful old city in the Northern Galilee, in our opinion. John and I were only a handful of outsiders visiting, and we were warmly welcomed by Musa Gerais, the town’s treasurer, who personally led us on a tour of the village. The highlights included an old stone chapel, very tiny, lovingly renovated and restored to its original 11th century splendor.
Outside, the town was elegantly decorated. The Sha’ir home was built in1776, renovated in 2019, and arrayed in tasteful holiday splendor. Across, the street was the large MelkiteChurch with a magnificent life-size nativity imported from Italy and a stunning Christmas tree. During the weekends leading up to Christmas, there will also be Christmas markets, street food, staged performances and fireworks.
There are so many more sights, sounds, smells, and celebrations in this part of Israel. Several of the churches in Nazareth and along the shores of the Galilee host classical concerts. The Ethiopian Jewish community celebrate their holiday of Sigd, which usually occurs at the beginning of December. Whether Jewish or Christian, there is more than ample opportunity to learn of the various traditions. Haifa hosts the Holiday of Holidays, in tribute to the three Abrahamic religions and their roots in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s interesting that the main street for this month-long celebration takes place at the foot of the Bahai Gardens.