JERUSALEM — Christmas season in the holy city of Jerusalem is very low-key, which might surprise many. You have to look hard for a Christmas tree here.
The Jerusalem shopping malls have no Christmas sales; the stores are not decked in holly; the materialistic aspects of the holiday season are mostly absent. There is no big Claus culture; The fa-la-la is muted.
Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population of Jerusalem, where the Bible says Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Christmas is just another day in Israel, so everyone trundles off to work and school. You usually can go to the post office on Christmas morning and pay your parking tickets, no problem. Except this year, Dec. 25 falls on a Friday, so everyone is off to honor the Jewish Sabbath.
Still, there are a few trees. At the New Gate to the Christian Quarter of the Old City, across from the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, they celebrated the lighting of a Christmas tree on Friday night. The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem serves mulled wine around ye olde artificial tree.
The Jerusalem International YMCA — housed in an iconic 1933 building designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, the architect of the Empire State Building — decorates the living tree out front. This year the Y also decked its landmark 152-foot-tall observation tower with more lights than in previous years. The far-right, anti-Arab group Lehava staged a protest. Its leaders claimed that Jewish children were inside decorating Christmas trees.
“Jews want a menorah, not a fir tree,” the demonstrators shouted, according to Israel National News.
“We’re not trying to convert Jews to Christians,” promised George Assousa, a nuclear scientist and a Palestinian Christian who sits on the board of directors at the YMCA and is proud of the organization’s history of bringing Jews, Muslims and Christians together — in the swimming pool and on the basketball court. Assousa said he is worried about Jerusalem’s Christian population.
“We’re disappearing,” he said. The number of Christians in the city has remained essentially flat since 1967, while the numbers of Jews and Muslims have grown steadily.
A couple of years ago, the Israeli parliament discussed and then rejected the idea of a public Christmas tree. A Christian Arab lawmaker wanted to put up a tree in the Knesset. The speaker, Yuli Edelstein, said the initiative was part of a Palestinian campaign to undermine the Jewish nature of Israel. Edelstein said a tree would bring back “painful memories” for Jews.
For those who want a Christmas tree in Jerusalem, there are a couple of options. Some Palestinians travel to nearby Beit Jala or Bethlehem to get a live or fresh-cut tree. The Jewish National Fund provides free Arizona cypresses to foreign correspondents and diplomats and to monasteries, convents and churches. The group also sells trees to the public for 70 shekels apiece, or about $18.
To get a tree, you drive 30 minutes from Jerusalem to the parking lot of a JNF plantation outside Beit Shemesh, where the rocky hills are carpeted with new forests. On Thursday, there were winter blue skies punctuated by soaking rains with fat, cold drops. Not a white Christmas, exactly, but — brrr.
Michal Kedar drove an hour from the beach town of Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea to pick up a tree. She’s originally from Finland, she said, “Santa Claus land.” She converted to Judaism, “but we still keep the old habits.” Her family decorates the tree with colored lights and Hanukkah candles, put presents underneath and dines on potato casseroles, salty fish and plum desserts. “I love the smell of the tree,” she said. “It reminds me of Finland.”
Katrina Ligett drove down from Jerusalem with her husband. It’s their first year in Israel. Both are teaching at Hebrew University — she computer science, he economics. “Basically, we just Googled ‘Christmas tree and Jerusalem,’ and here we are,” Ligett said. “It’s very nice of them to do this.”
The Jewish National Fund will sell and give away 800 trees over the two days of distribution in central Israel. The British, Russian and U.S. embassies combined snapped up 84 trees for their employees. Another 200 are given to the Jerusalem municipality, which offers complimentary trees at the Jaffa Gate to residents with IDs.
Ligett is from New Hampshire, where her family would visit a tree farm, cut one down and drag it back through the snow to the car. She seemed wistful at the memory. “You miss it,” she said.
Eva and Daniel Phillips were squeezing a six-footer into their compact car. “We’re Jews. We’re Israelis,” Eva Phillips said. “Finding a tree has proved difficult.” They went online, too. “We decided to do Christmas. Get a tree, put presents under the tree, watch Christmas movies,” she said. Her husband wasn’t thrilled about the selection. “We found the best of the worst,” he said.
Michelle Lubash and her daughter Eleanor drove from Israel’s high-tech center, Herzilya, to get a tree. “We’re a mixed family,” she explained, Christian and Jewish. “I’m the Christmas-tree half.” She is originally from California.
She asked her daughter, “Does Santa come to Herzliya?”
“Yes!” Eleanor said.
Arie Gilat from Modiin is a retired geologist who spent years in the desert studying the Great Rift Valley between Israel and Jordan. “I’m a Jew,” he said. He moved to Israel from Moscow in 1971. “For us Russians, the tree is the symbol of the new year. In the old Soviet Union, it was the only festival that wasn’t political, wasn’t ruined by the communists. It was a real celebration.”
He comes to get a tree every year. Was he looking for a big one or a small one?
“I am looking for a beautiful one,” he said.
Before he drove away, he shouted, “Happy Christmas!”