Peace in the Middle East: How to Spend Christmas in Israel
I’m a bit delayed in getting this post out, but I’m so excited to share my Christmas in Isreal last year with you! At this same time one year ago I was in the Middle East. How I got to be in the Middle East over the holiday season is beyond me, but things just fell into place and I got to spend Christmas in Israel/Palestine and New Years in Jordan! I mean…what’s better than celebrating Christmas in the place where it all began?
I’m going to preface this blog post by saying that I’m not all that religious, so going to Israel was more of a historical and cultural experience more than anything. Still, it was magical and I highly recommend spending time in the “Holy Land” over the Christmas or Hannakuh season if you can swing it.
Everyone in Isreal has to join the army and so you’ll see tons of young women and men holding machine guns. It was scary at first, but you get used to it.
It’s so fun to see a mix of Hannukah decor and Christmas decor all over Jerusalem. I loved seeing the two holidays celebrated together.
3 NIGHTS IN JERUSALEM: WHAT WE DID
During Christmas and Hannakah, Jerusalem is a bit more crowded than it normally is. However, I didn’t think it was half as crowded as places I’d been in Europe during the holiday season (cough, cough, Prague) and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of getting around!
After taking a mini-bus on Shabat with locals and my new friends I had made in Tel Aviv, I arrived in Jerusalem. The first thing we did was take a Sandamans Free Walking Tour. These tours are awesome and I try and do them wherever I am in whatever city I’m visiting. I loved touring around Jerusalem with this group. We had amazing views of the city, got to tour the different quarters inside the city walls and had a great history lesson.
We also go to visit the walled city that has a Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian Quarterthat all started at the Jaffa gate. This was incredible to do during the Christmas and Hannakah season because each quarter (right next to one another) was decorated differently. You could take two steps and immediately feel like you’re in a different country or location based on religion. It’s amazing that all of these religions live together in one place. Sometimes there is conflict, but most of the time they live peacefully together, which I found fascinating.
(Christian Quarter on Christmas Eve)
(Jewish Quarter during the day)
On Christmas Eve night and one of the (I can’t remember now) days of Hannukah, we went to the Western Wall. This was such a cool experience for me! I went to the wall with a group of guys and we all wandered up to the wall and then quickly realized we were all on the women’s side. We had a nice lady let us know the men had their own section and they quickly left me to go to the other side.
On the men’s side, they had to wear yarmulke’s on their head to enter into the wall. I went on by myself to the wall on the women’s side (no yarmulke (pronounced yamaka) needed for women) and once I got up to the wall and actually touched it I could feel the energy emanating from it. There were a lot of people around, but it almost felt like the wall was buzzing and I couldn’t believe how cool that was!
They had a big menorah lit up and there were Hasidic Jewish people wearing furry circular hats (photo below) and curls down their ears praying at the wall. I couldn’t believe how cool it was to be there during Christmas Eve and Hannukah and experience this!
The crazy part (although debatable also) was that Jewish people aren’t allowed to go past the Western Wall aka Wailing Wall to the Dome of the Rock which is considered the holiest spot in most religions. Muslims have rule over the Dome of the Rock as of now and have built a mosque on top.
The drama in this country between religions is absolutely crazy and confusing.
Everyone has a different side to take and different way of explaining how so many religions live together in one of the holiest places on earth. Once entering into Israel and Palestine you get so many different sides of each story that your brain will spin, but it’s absolutely fascinating!
After the Western Wall, we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was said to have been crucified and where his empty tomb lies. We touched the stone where he laid and left with our hands smelling of cloves. Below are a few more photos from inside of this church. It was pretty busy on Christmas Eve, but fun to see in real life!
Side Note: Most of the holy sites from the Bible had churches, mosques or synagogues built on top of them. For example, the spot where Jesus was born, the well Mary was told she’d have a son, Jesus’s death place and resurrection spot all have churches built over the “exact spot”. However, there are a few spots where multiple churches claim that “this is the spot where it happened” so it’s somewhat confusing…
On Christmas Eve, along with listening to a live band and having a party at our Abraham Hostel, we headed to the Mahane Yehuda night market for a drink and some food. This market has an incredibley cool vibe and on this particular night, it was filled with people and had some of the hippest restaurants and bars we’d seen in Jerusalem so far. We had drinks, enjoyed the music, and people watched like crazy as we enjoyed our Christmas Eve night in the Holy Land!
FREE BUS TO BETHLEHEM:
On Christmas Eve night, there are free buses that take people from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to go to the church that is over the spot Jesus was born. We considered doing this but opted to go another day so we could have the entire day to explore instead of dealing with crowds. If you are here for Christmas, this is a great option to experience the Bethlehem church for Christmas Eve! See below to read my day trip in Bethlehem.
(Church of the Holy Sepulchre aka the church built over the spot that Jesus was crucified)
EATING IN JERUSALEM:
I was on a mega-budget in Israel because it is a bit expensive, but if you can eat one place in Jerusalem, go to Jachnun Bar. Get the regular wrap and prepare to crave this thing for the rest of your life. For a great hummus spot, check out Hummus Lina. While you’re in Israel you also have to try the famous holiday donuts that you can get at local bakeries. They aren’t too sweet and seriously so good!
Another great day in Jerusalem we went up to the Dome of the Rock where we actually had to show our passports to go through security to see the mosque. We couldn’t go into the actual mosque because we aren’t Muslim, but this is one of the holiest places on the planet and it was beautiful and fun to see.
After viewing the Dome of the Rock we went up to the Mount of Olives to see the famous Jewish cemetery and the spot where Jesus rose up to heaven.
1 DAY AT THE DEAD SEA & MASADA
Christmas Day was probably my favorite day of my entire 3 weeks in Israel. Six friends and I decided to rent a car in Jerusalem and drive down to the Dead Sea and hike up Masada. Masada is an ancient fortress that looks out over the Dead Sea so it was perfect to do them both on a day trip. The car rental was fairly easy and we all piled in and made our friend, Shamant from India, drive because he was used to crazy roads like this. Thanks Shamant!
In order to get to the Dead Sea and Masada, we had to drive through the West Bank. We saw some sketchy walls and barbed wire and thought at some points we were headed in the wrong direction, but we ended up finding our way just fine. We first stopped at Masada where we hiked for about an hour (I was dying) up a huge dirt cliff to the top of this fortress. Why I didn’t take the cable car is beyond me, but we did it and it was so hot but worth the climb. We spent about an hour at the top taking photos and checking out the museum at the top as the clouds changed.
After getting all dirty and sweaty at Masada, we drove over to a secret spot at the Dead Sea that some locals had told us about called Metzoke Dragot. We had the ENTIRE Dead Sea to ourselves! I highly recommend going to a non-touristy spot like this vs. using the tours and hotels because you’ll have it all to yourself.
Watch out for sink holes though!
Right as the sun was going down we had an incredible sunset for about 30 minutes as we soaked and gave ourselves mud masks. I can’t describe how incredible floating in the Dead Sea in Isreal on Christmas with all of my new friends was. I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven.
1 DAY IN BETHLEHEM
We were told before coming to Isreal that it’s really hard to go to Palestine. Bethlehem is actually technically in Palestine along with a bunch of other cities like Hebron and Ramallah so I wasn’t sure how we would even get to Bethlehem. I thought I would have to show my passport or something, but it ended up being super easy. Our bus did go through a security station, but that was it. The bus ride was 40-minutes from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and upon entering Bethlehem was like entering into another world! I couldn’t believe what was on the other side of Israel.
The conditions were noticeably worse and it was a huge wake-up call for me. These people over in Palestine don’t have the money Isreal does and are essentially “cut off” from most things Isreal has to offer. It was sad for me because I was pretty much clueless about the situation. The locals were noticeably more aggressive trying to sell us stuff because they needed money. It was pretty depressing actually.
Our first stop in Bethlehem was to go to the church built on the spot Jesus was born.
This was pretty amazing to see and we even saw the exact spot he was apparently born. The photo below with the star.
After the church we got a cab to take us to the wall that separates Israel from Palestine. This is not just any ordinary wall….this is like the freakin’ Berlin wall. It was built to keep Palestinians out of Israel. More photos above. From stories I’ve heard from both sides, Israelis think that Palestinians are terrorists and Palestinians think that Israelis want to completely get rid of their race.
We went up and saw the wall and all of the protesting graffiti art done by Banksy and other artists.
The whole thing is a mess and I can’t understand everything, but it makes me sad that the two can’t get along. Many Palestinians are living in 60-year-old refugee camps in Palestine with no help from the Israeli government even though all of the lands in Israel used to be Palestine. Anyway, I could go on and on about this. It’s hard to say whether either country is in the wrong because either way someone gets hurt. It’s just interesting to see the differences after going to visit. I have a few friends who ventured further into the actual refugee camps and they met some amazing people who told them really interesting stories. I’m going to have to go back one day!
All in all, my trip to Isreal for Christmas was wonderful and eye-opening and has forever changed my views of the Middle East. I have more stories about my time in Isreal specifically in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth, and Akko, but those will have to wait for another time!
I hope this inspired you to visit Isreal over Christmas or to visit the country just to get a fascinating cultural trip under your belt!
WHERE TO STAY
Jerusalem was a highlight of the entire trip to the Middle East. We stayed at the Abraham Hostel which was ‘OK’, but for a hostel there were a ton of families there which was weird. I don’t know if I would stay there again and had I not made all of those friends at my hostel in Tel Aviv I wouldn’t have probably made any friends to spend Christmas with. Next time I will stay somewhere else I think, but then again it could have just been because it was the holidays. Airbnb’s are also a great option for Jerusalem and I have a $40 off code here.
I had a lot of other adventures in Isreal over the 3 weeks I spent there and will share more as time goes on. Visiting Isreal over Christmas and Hannakuah was a special cultural experience and I’m so glad I got to be apart of it! Learning about the conflict between Israel and Palestine also really opened my eyes to what the hell is actually happening over there. What a fun and crazy experience it was!
Would you go to Isreal for Christmas or would you go to Israel in general? Would you venture over to Palestine? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Welcome to the Traveling Spud! I’m Katie, a 30 something from Idaho who quit her marketing job in San Francisco, California to travel the world for a year. After a trip around the world, my heart chose Idaho. I'm addicted to outdoor adventures, photography, and inspiring others to get out of their comfort zones and cross experiences off of their bucket lists. Let's explore together! Read more here.