Christians eager to protect Nazareth's biblical origins at Christmas

Christians eager to protect Nazareth's biblical origins at Christmas
Christmas in Nazareth is becoming an increasingly popular destination for residents, tourists and pilgrims alike, but some fear the city is losing its Christian charm.
3 min read
24 December, 2016
Christmas markets are growing in popularity in the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth [Getty]
The colourful Christmas Eve parade is the culmination of weeks of festivities in the northern Palestinian-Israeli city of Nazareth, which is seeing a growing number of visitors each year enjoying Christmas markets, decorations and lights.

On Saturday, youth groups and Christian leaders, street performers and musicians will be joining a parade of decorated cars to the Church of the Annunciation, where a mass will be held.

"Christmas in Israel and in Nazareth in particular is far less commercialised than you would find in Europe or the US, with the city's Christian Arab population leading the celebrations," Ben Julius, founder of Tourist Israel, told The New Arab.

"The city is colourfully decorated and there is a special vibe in the air as many thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world will be in town," he added.

"It will be raining but that won't prevent people from walking in the procession," added Pastor George Khalil, from the Christian Brethren Assembly in Nazareth, ahead of the "joyful" event.

A Christmas Eve parade is a popular tradition in Nazareth [Getty]

The childhood home of Jesus, Nazareth is considered the cradle of Christianity, where many pilgrims - especially at this time of year - visit the city described in the New Testament.

Christians make up 30 percent of its population - and less than two percent of the population of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, with Christmas celebrations becoming increasingly embraced by Nazareth's Muslim residents, including Jewish neighbours living in Nazareth-Illit.

"The city has become more of a destination for curious Israelis who are interested in the customs of Christmas and visiting Nazareth at this unique time of the year," Julius said.

But the more secular atmosphere and commercial focus has brought with it fears Nazareth's Christian influence is dwindling.

Christian businessman and member of the local Church of Christ congregation Awny Jadon told The New Arab he felt Nazareth was "losing its real nature".

"Nazareth, during Christmas, doesn't hold within it a religious and spiritual atmosphere like Christmas should bring to mankind," he said.

"It's not like the streets of London or New York. You can feel it's Christmas there but they are Christian countries. Nazareth isn't a Christian city. People still decorate their homes, but the Christian presence is becoming less and less influential."

The nativity is reenacted in Nazareth [Getty]

Jadon said Christians were leaving Nazareth, unhappy with the Israeli government and seeking better opportunities elsewhere, and estimated that within five years the Christian population has dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent.

"In fact, the new age is becoming less and less interested in getting married and indeed few are getting married unlike, other religious and ethnic groups in Israel where they exceed the median," Jadon said.

"The city is the origin of Christianity, it's history - nothing can take that fact away - but what good is that if Christians are leaving? They can't take the pressure anymore."

However, Pastor George was more optimistic about the co-existence of faiths in Nazareth.

"This occasion brings people together whether on a family level or the city level - Christians and Muslims who often don't socialise together," he said.

"Most of those who attend the procession are Muslims. They don't have anything similar so they join and celebrate. There are about 45,000 people in Upper Nazareth, the majority are Jewish and a few of them also participate and have a look."

Pastor Nizar Touma, leader of the Nazarene Church, added: "We have to remember the city belongs to Jesus, he grew up in this place, he was announced to the Virgin Mary in this place so this place has a special value in the heart of all believers around the world.

"It's a season where everybody's happy," he added. "Santa Claus has a big role to play here like everywhere else in the world."