'Many Jewish Israelis want to see the lights'

As war mars festivities, Christians in Israel and West Bank cling to Christmas spirit

In Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, public celebrations have been called off, but some insist that the holiday’s message of hope must be allowed to shine

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Issa Kassissieh dressed up as Santa Claus welcoming visitors inside 'Jerusalem's Santa House' in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, December 14, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
Issa Kassissieh dressed up as Santa Claus welcoming visitors inside 'Jerusalem's Santa House' in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, December 14, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Over the past few years, a tradition developed in Jerusalem in December — a Christmas market held along the street that starts at the New Gate, one of the entry points to the Old City’s Christian Quarter. While the market was limited in size in comparison to those around the world, it had become a cherished tradition for locals and tourists.

This year, however, Christmas festivities have been suppressed as a result of the war in Gaza between Israel and the terror group Hamas. The heads of major churches announced in November that holiday celebrations would be suspended throughout the Holy Land in solidarity with those suffering from the conflict.

The Old City of Jerusalem has fallen quiet since October 7, with the influx of tourists all but halted, and many shop and restaurant owners have shuttered their businesses.

During a recent visit, none of the owners who chose to keep their stores open along New Gate Street were willing to comment on the decision to cancel the market, a major seasonal boon for the area, saying only that they preferred to “stay away from politics.” But residents seemed to support the move. “Forgoing festivities is the minimum we can do, while people are facing genocide in Gaza,” said a local Palestinian girl.

However, some do not agree with the total obliteration of the Christmas atmosphere. One of those is Issa Kassissieh, a Jerusalem Christian who 15 years ago transformed the ground floor of his 700-year-old home into Santa’s house.

For three hours every day throughout December, he is decked out in a red suit and a white beard and welcomes visitors of all faiths into his home, belting out “ho, ho, hos.” Santa’s grotto is complete with a Christmas tree, a workshop, a kitchen and a little shop with souvenirs, cookies and mulled wine.

Issa Kassissieh stands outside Santa’s House, created out of his family’s 700-year-old home, December 21, 2017. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Kassissieh said that most people in the Old City live off tourism, and many will be affected by the cancellation of Christmas festivities, but he decided that as Santa he would keep welcoming visitors — Palestinians and Israelis alike — in the privacy of his home, to preserve and convey the Christmas spirit.

“This year in particular, I want to send a special message of hope, love and peace from the heart of Jerusalem to the world. Three years ago, we were in the midst of COVID, and we couldn’t hug. And now it’s difficult because of the war,” he said.

“Usually, people would queue up for hours to enter Santa’s house. Now we have many fewer visitors. However, people are still coming from all around Israel and the area. Two days ago, a family came from Bethlehem, and told me, ‘Thank God Santa’s house is open, so that at least children can feel something is happening in this season,’” Kassissieh continued.

“We are sad for all the people that are dying. But on the other hand, we need to relieve people from stress, and send out a message of peace. In my house, I welcome Jewish, Muslim and Christian visitors. Everybody loves Santa. For me, Jerusalem is the heart of the world. If we can create peace here, we will have peace everywhere.”

A street in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, usually lined with restaurants and shops, sits empty amid Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and the halt to international tourism to the city, December 14, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

War erupted between Israel and Hamas with the October 7 onslaught in southern Israel, when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border from Gaza and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took some 240 hostages amid acts of horrific brutality.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, and launched a wide-scale offensive in Gaza aimed at destroying the terror group’s military and governance capabilities.

Over 18,000 Gazans have been killed so far in the fighting, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry — a figure that cannot be verified and includes terrorists as well as civilians killed by errant Palestinian rocket fire. Israel says it has killed 7,000 Hamas operatives.

A silent night in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, also called off Christmas festivities, which typically include a Christmas tree towering over Manger Square, a nativity scene, market stalls all around the plaza, and elaborate light decorations throughout the city center, in a celebration that draws thousands of visitors from around the world.

“The economy is crashing,” Mayor Hana Haniyeh told The Associated Press on Friday. “But if we compare it with what’s happening to our people and Gaza, it’s nothing.”

City leaders have fretted about the impact the closures have on the small Palestinian economy in the West Bank, already struggling with a dramatic fall in tourism since the start of the war. The Palestinian tourism sector has incurred losses of $2.5 million a day, projected to amount to $200 million by the end of the year, the Palestinian tourism minister said Wednesday.

The main highlight of the Christmas season in Bethlehem, the traditional midnight mass on December 24, will still be held at the Nativity Church by the Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem.

Visitors walk in Manger Square on Christmas Eve outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Father Ibrahim Faltas, vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land, told The Times of Israel that Bethlehem’s Christian community – constituting about one-third of the city’s inhabitants, a sharp decline from the 85 percent it was in 1950 – is “very, very sad,” because “Bethlehem without tourists and without pilgrims is a dead city. The city streets that used to be bustling with people are now empty.”

“I have organized Christmas festivities since 1992 and I have never seen anything like this. It’s worse than under the Second Intifada,” the clergyman continued, referring to the major Palestinian uprising against Israel that took place between 2000 and 2005. In 2002, a 38-day standoff developed between the IDF and Palestinian terrorists inside the Nativity Church, in which eight were killed.

“Bethlehem today has been turned into an open-air prison — nobody comes in and nobody goes out,” Father Faltas said, referencing access limitations imposed by Israel on the city and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank since October 7.

Daniel Aqleh, a tour guide from Bethlehem and an active member of the local Evangelical community, said that in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the city’s streets would normally be thronged by tourists, and animated by concerts, band marches and other public events.

Commenting on the damage to the city’s economy from the war, Aqleh said that the fallout for the tourism industry has been felt for months. “October and November are peak tourist season here. Over the summer, the influx of tourists was weak, so we had been really looking forward to the autumn months. But after October 7, tourism came to a complete halt.”

The family owns a hostel and a small chapel, which has been hosting regular Advent services for the local Evangelical community and provided a place for the congregation to get together and pray in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. Aqleh said his father wouldn’t let him put up a Christmas tree, because of the war in Gaza.

A prayer service inside the Aqleh family’s ‘Prayer and Healing Church’ in Bethlehem, May 31, 2022. (Facebook)

A glint of light in Nazareth

In line with the other two sites of Christian pilgrimage, the northern Israeli city of Nazareth also canceled most of the annual festivities. “The atmosphere is not conducive to celebrations,” said Hanan Sabbah, director of the city’s Cultural and Tourism Association.

Traditional events in the city around this time include a market, a decorated tree on Mary’s Well Square, and a procession on Christmas Eve, and tend to attract large numbers of international as well as Jewish Israeli tourists.

“Christmas is a holiday of lights, decorations and joy – many have said that it is not appropriate to celebrate in the aftermath of October 7 in Israel, and given what is happening in Gaza today,” Sabbah said. “We are still mourning.”

The city’s annual festival of liturgical music has taken place as scheduled, albeit shorter than usual, and other concerts are slated to take place inside churches in the days leading up to Christmas. “The audience has been mostly made up of local Arabs and not of Jews this year,” Sabbah said.

A woman exits a souvenir shop selling Christmas mementos and accessories in the center of Israel’s northern city of Nazareth on December 18, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“While the municipality of Nazareth has not put up new Christmas decorations, some are still up from previous years. Many local people have been searching for a sliver of hope in the lights, a feeling that life goes on – so they have put up ornaments inside their homes, on their balconies, in their shops,” he said.

“While we have not had large groups of Israeli visitors, as we usually do around Christmas, I have received numerous phone calls from the south [of Israel],” Sabbah added. “People want to come to Nazareth to spend a night or two here, take their children to see something different, and get away from the atmosphere of war.”

“We thought there would be no Christmas this year, but it turned out that many Jewish Israelis want to see the lights,” he said. “Something that will bring them a little optimism.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: