Jerusalem and Bethlehem are less than 5 miles apart, so for travelers who are spending Christmas in the Holy Land, chances are you’ll be looking for things to do in both places over the upcoming holiday weekend.
Israel is one of the few western countries where Christmas is not a national holiday–with a Christian minority of just 150,000 people out of a population of 7 million, that’s not too surprising.
This year, Christmas falls out on the Jewish sabbath, so you’ll have to look that much harder for ways to spend the holiday, but here are some suggestions.
Take a tour to nearby Bethlehem–about 10 minutes from Jerusalem by bus or car. At 5:30 p.m on Christmas Eve, choirs from all over the world gather in Manger Square to sing carols. Walk through the nearby market to get a flavor of this hilly little town and stay for mass at the Syrian Catholic Church in the square that starts at 7 p.m.
Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has laid on a free shuttle between Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The shuttles will leave every hour on the hour from the Mar Elias Monastery on Hebron Road to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and return on the half hour, from Friday, 24.12.10 at noon to Saturday 25.12.10 at noon.
The kids will enjoy the traditional Christmas morning parade in Bethlehem that starts at 11 a.m and features marching bands and Santas, making their way into and around Manger Square.
Make your way back into Jerusalem and head for Midnight Mass at the Notre Dame Church, right across the street from New Gate into the Old City, where you’ll find Israelis and visitors from all over the world taking in the experience.
Or, head over to the Anglican Cathedral of St.George on Nablus Road for the 11:30 p.m Christmas Eve Holy Eucharist in English and Arabic. Services at the Cathedral take place on Christmas Day at 8 a.m and 10 a.m.
If you have young kids who need their sleep, try the earlier Christmas Eve Family Carol service at the Jerusalem YMCA on King David Street that starts at 7 p.m.
In the Old City? Stop in at Christ Church near Jaffa Gate from 7-10 p.m on Christmas Eve for carols or at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Muristan at 5 p.m on Christmas eve for a multi-lingual carol service.
If you’re still in the mood on the day after Christmas, the Church of the Ascension Church on Mount Scopus is hosting a 4 p.m carol service on December 26.
While you won’t find too many Christmas lights on display (stop in at the American Colony Hotel for a nice Christmas-y atmosphere), blue and white lights adorn the up-scale Mamilla Alrov Mall outside Jaffa Gate.