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Expat Exchange - Christmas in Israel
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Christmas in Israel

By Betsy Burlingame

William Russell
William Russell

Summary: Explore the festive traditions of Christmas and New Year in Israel, where the celebrations are marked by special foods, church ceremonies, the exchange of gifts, and an array of cultural customs.

Living in Israel - Christmas in Israel

The holiday season in Israel offers a unique experience, especially for expats and digital nomads who are used to more traditional Christmas and New Year's celebrations. While Israel's population is predominantly Jewish and the country's national holidays reflect the Jewish calendar, there is still a festive atmosphere and several ways to celebrate the season for those who observe Christmas and New Year's.

Christmas in the Holy Land

Christmas in Israel is a special time, particularly in areas with significant Christian populations. The city of Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, and Jerusalem's Old City, especially around the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, come alive with decorations and festivities. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, just a short distance from Jerusalem in the Palestinian Territories, is a focal point for pilgrims and tourists alike, with a vibrant midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve.

While the majority of Israelis do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, there is a recognition of its significance, and you can find Christmas markets, tree decorations, and festive lights in these areas. In cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, local businesses and hotels may put up Christmas trees and decorations to cater to the international crowd.

New Year's Celebrations

New Year's, known as "Sylvester" in Israel, is celebrated by many Israelis, regardless of their religious background. Parties and events are common in bars, clubs, and hotels across the country. Fireworks displays and public concerts can also be found, particularly in Tel Aviv, which is known for its vibrant nightlife.

While not a traditional Jewish holiday, Sylvester has been embraced by many Israelis as a secular celebration, and it's not uncommon for people to gather with friends and family to ring in the New Year with food, drinks, and festivities.

Festive Events and Traditions

In the lead-up to Christmas, various events such as carol singing, markets, and live performances can be found, particularly in Christian neighborhoods and towns. While Santa Claus, known as "Father Christmas" in some cultures, is not a widespread figure in Israel, some shops and Christmas markets may feature someone dressed up as Santa for children to enjoy.

Gift-giving is not as central to Christmas in Israel as it is in many Western countries, but it is still practiced among those who celebrate, often focusing on smaller, meaningful gifts rather than the commercialized gift-giving frenzy.

Traditional Foods and Desserts

For those celebrating Christmas, traditional foods might include roasted meats, rich stews, and an array of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Desserts could range from baklava to Christmas cookies, with influences from the diverse cultures that make up Israel's population.

New Year's is often celebrated with a festive meal, sometimes featuring symbolic foods that represent good fortune for the coming year. As Israel is a melting pot of cultures, these meals can vary greatly but often include an assortment of appetizers, main courses, and desserts, with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients.

Christmas Eve and Day Celebrations

Christmas Eve is often marked by attending church services for those who observe the holiday. The most famous is the midnight mass in Bethlehem, but there are also services in churches throughout Israel. Christmas Day itself is usually a quieter affair, spent with family and friends, enjoying a festive meal and the company of loved ones.

While church attendance is common among Christians in Israel, it's not as widespread as in some other countries due to the smaller Christian population. Those who do attend church often go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve or services on Christmas Day.

Decorations and Festive Hotspots

Certain towns and neighborhoods are known for their Christmas spirit. Nazareth hosts a Christmas market and a festive parade, while Bethlehem is adorned with lights and decorations, creating a truly magical atmosphere. Jerusalem's Old City sees its Christian Quarter lit up with lights, and the YMCA often hosts a series of Christmas events and activities.

In conclusion, while Christmas and New Year's in Israel may differ from the experiences of expats and digital nomads in their home countries, the season is still filled with its own unique charm and celebrations. From the historical and religious significance of the Holy Land to the modern festivities of Sylvester, there is a blend of tradition and contemporary celebration that creates a memorable holiday season for all who are there to experience it.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.


William Russell
William Russell

William Russell
William Russell

William Russell
William Russell

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