It’s December 24 and Nazareth’s main Christmas Mass is about to start. Churchgoers are gathering at the gate, fresh from Hanukkah candle-lighting.
Jewish Israelis are thronging Jesus’ home town, having arrived from all over the country, determined to experience scenes that are familiar from their Netflix feed, but absent from most of Israel.
“We see Christmas all the time on TV, but we don’t see it close up enough and we don’t experience it,” said Alex Gal, who made a six-hour round trip from Kibbutz Tlalim in the Negev desert to see the lights and hear the Santas laugh.
Nazareth is a mixed Muslim-Christian city, and Gal spoke loudly to be heard on over the sounds of the street — Arabic-language carols combined with the sound of the mosque’s call to prayer. His wife, Rina, who was standing with their two daughters, said: “I googled ‘Christmas in Israel’ and it threw up Nazareth. People go abroad to see it but we just came here. I wanted to get the atmosphere.”
Nearby a tour guide was rushing his group to leave Nazareth. He offered a two-for the-price-of-one deal that also includes time in Israel’s next best Christmas city: Haifa.
Tens of thousands of Jewish tourists have visited Nazareth over the last few days, according to tourist information office staff Roz Hayek. Many get their dose of Christmas by going to the big tree and the market, which are in the city center, and the Nazareth Village open-air museum, which is a 10 minute walk away and honors “the life, times and teachings of Jesus.” But some go further, and want the church experience too.
The main mass, at the Church of the Annunciation, is still predominantly attended by local Christians, but there is so much interest from others that a ticketing process has been put in place.
As the crowd gathered at the massive illuminated church building, kibbutznik Inbar Tal and her husband Chaim were excited. “People in there are about to celebrate a special moment, and while it’s their story, not my story, it’s still going to be moving,” she said.
Tal, 53, who lives on Kibbutz Kfar Menahem in the south, said that this kind of cultural adventuring was unusual when she was young, “but now there are lots of people who want experiences like this.” Her husband commented: “It’s the same change that makes Israeli Jews flock to India — today we’re really open to the world.”
At the city’s tourist information center, the overworked staffer, one of Israel’s 177,000 Christians, is trying to go home to get ready for her family’s Christmas celebrations.
“There have been more Jewish visitors than any other year,” commented Hayek, as people ignored the “Closed” sign and keep entering the tourist office. “There isn’t a single hotel room,” she said. But today nobody needs to resort to a manger — Airbnbs happily soak up the extra business.
In the store of El Mokhtar Sweets, owner Mohanda Oudah, a Muslim who is Christmas-crazy, is able to cite ingredient lists of each product for his kosher-observant customers. He is flipping syrup-soaked baklava as fast as he can, but the line still extends to the sidewalk.
“Every year it gets 20 percent busier at Christmas,” Oudah said, adding that most of the increase consists of Jewish visitors.
Amer Zaher has noticed the change too from his post in the choir section of the Church of the Annunciation. There have been raised eyebrows among congregants in recent years as some Jewish visitors have taken out food or let kids play with phones during mass, but Zaher does not have a bad word to say about the interfaith exposure. “It’s everyone’s festival, not just ours,” he said cheerily, as he dashed to warm up at his final pre-mass rehearsal.
Intense advertising campaigns on Hebrew-language TV and radio have helped to boost Nazareth’s tourism. This year in particular, the fact that Christmas falls during Hanukkah school holidays has helped things along.
Nazareth also has low-cost airlines to thank for the increase in domestic visitors. In a cafe, three 18-year-olds from Givatayim were eating baklava. “I was in Berlin a month ago and saw Christmas for the first time, so I wanted to see more,” said Nir Freedman. His friend Yonatan Harari had also taken advantage of affordable flights and visited Prague, where he became similarly curious about Christmas.
But Nazareth is not meeting everyone’s expectations. Standing near an abandoned road sign that has been pulled out of the ground, Iris Shalint of Haifa said that the city is “neglected,” and her friend Ethel Elidan of Tel Aviv was unhappy about dirt and uneven sidewalks. Elidan said that if Nazareth is to be a tourist magnet, it needs to up its game. “I’m going to write to the mayor and say he should fix things up,” she said.
But the complaints, the traffic, and the struggle to find parking are not holding back the crowds. Some Israeli Jews have even started an annual tradition.
“We come here every year for Christmas,” said Maya Buskilla, 20, who was in a group of four, everyone clad in Santa hats and discussing where they will be lighting Hanukkah candles over the coming days. “It’s the atmosphere closest to Europe or the US.” She added, using the Hebrew acronym for overseas, “It’s like chul here.”
For many Israelis, there’s nothing ideological in visiting Nazareth — it’s pure fun. But for some visitors, such as Michal Relles of Kfar Saba, her presence there is about making a statement. “We wanted to show respect to another culture,” she said, standing in a bakery next to chocolate Santas and Hanukkah donuts.
She beamed with pride when her 9-year-old grandson recited a rhyme about coexistence, as the lights on his Santa hat flashed. Relles spent a stint as an emissary in America, where she was involved in coexistence projects, and wanted to give her grandson a first-hand experience.
This Christmas Eve, Nina Gluxman of Netanya was in the midst of the Christmas she never experienced living under Communism. While she is Christian, from age 7, she wore a Lenin badge, and her childhood featured lots of Communist ideology, but no church.
She met her Jewish husband 20 years ago and moved to Israel. While making her way to her first mass, Gluxman said she was bowled over by the “amazingly festive atmosphere.” She said she fell in love with the combination of intense religious experience and diverse crowd. “I feel this is unique to Israel,” said Gluxman.