It’s debatably the most important Christian holiday, yet in Israel — birthplace of Christendom but home to far fewer Christians than Jews — Christmas is something of an anomaly. No decorated fir trees lining the streets, a serious lack of twinkling Christmas lights (except in Bethlehem), and a dearth of Christmas sales and specials.
Still, this is the land of Jesus, born in Bethlehem (some say Bethlehem in the Galilee), raised in Nazareth, sent to his crucifixion along the Old City’s Via Dolorosa. In truth, Israel is the place to celebrate, says Reverend David Neuhaus, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar at the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel.
“It’s really more meaningful in Israel,” says Neuhaus. “Christmas is ultimately religious here because there’s nothing commercial or social going on, and there’s so much of that elsewhere. And then you’re celebrating it here, where everything happened.”
There have always been Christians — obviously — in Israel. Besides Arab Christians and other Christians who choose to live in the holy land, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic parishes were originally formed in the 1950s to accommodate European families who moved to Israel following the Holocaust. Very often, says Neuhaus, the families would be made up of a Jewish, assimilated father, a religious Catholic mother and their children. Within time, that second generation assimilated into Israeli society. By the 1990s, with the Russian aliyah, it was similar kinds of Russian families that made up the parishes, although their children also eventually assimilated into Israeli society. Now, it’s the foreign and migrant workers and their children, as well as the Lebanese Maronites up north, who seek Hebrew-speaking churches and religious education for their Hebrew-speaking children.
“We’re kind of a very diverse bunch,” says Neuhaus, who is also the pastoral coordinator for migrants in Israel. “For the migrant workers, being here is like a dream come true.”
But it’s not Neuhaus’ church that draws the crowds on Christmas Eve, they tend to meet in more discreet places. That’s probably a good thing, because Israelis — Jewish Israelis, both secular and religious — love Christmas midnight mass, and like to church-hop. Each year, on Christmas Eve, hundreds of Israelis flock to churches in Jerusalem, Abu Gosh, Jaffa and Haifa to get a glimpse of the pageantry, music and homilies that make up mass; no matter whether it’s Episcopalian, Catholic, Lutheran, Russian Orthodox or Maronite.
They don’t always love the long service, however, comments Neuhaus.
“They don’t want to sit through the three-hour spiel, and then they get up and leave and create havoc,” he says with a sigh. After all, this is primarily a crowd that doesn’t attend synagogue on a weekly basis. And while the various pastors welcome these once-a-year Israelis, some churches have begun to issue tickets to guarantee seats for their faithful worshippers.
“We all speak about it very openly and everybody is aware of the issue,” says Neuhaus, adding that many churches now have an introduction to Mass in Hebrew so that the Jewish audience can better understand the service.
That said, what’s drawing Israelis to Christmas Mass? A few things, ventures Neuhaus. For one, Israelis like to travel and going to mass is “like taking an overseas trip,” he says, chuckling. Israelis are also intimately connected to Western culture and there are elements in the service that remind them of their ties to the world abroad, and to their roots as Europeans, he adds.
“I am always aware that when I’m speaking in Hebrew, there are people who may be Jewish and not Catholic in the audience,” he adds. “I think [this kind of sharing] is healthy, and that we’re developing a discourse.”