I love Christmas. Growing up in New York, how could I not? The lights, the window displays, the Salvation Army Santa ringing a bell and making me feel guilty for hurrying by…these are the things I love. For the last 3 years, however, I haven’t really acknowledged Christmas. First of all, I am not a Christian; Hanukkah is my bag. My love of Christmas is focused purely on the material marketing that makes it glitter. Tinsel! Trees! Coca Cola Santa commercials! Jingle Bells!
Secondly, there isn’t exactly what you would call “Christmas Spirit” in Israel. Oh sure, Israel has many of the most important sites of all Christendom-but for the majority of people living their day-to-day lives, Christmas does not exist on the radar. Christmas here manifests itself in subtler ways. The non-kosher Russian deli, for example, has a little plastic tree in the window. If you go to the airport around this time, you’ll see groups and groups of people; Japanese, German, Brazilian, Italian, Filipino, being led by tour-guide nuns on “Jesus Tours”.
I took no part in this. Christmas to me was Santa at Macy’s, not a church service in the sun.
A day before Christmas Eve though, I felt a change of heart. It occurred to me that while I loved traveling to other places to soak up their culture and history, I was living in one of the most culturally and historically significant places on earth….and I wasn’t taking advantage of it. My impending graduation made the situation all the more urgent. It had to be done now!
On such short notice, options were limited. Nazareth was out-it was a far drive and no one with a car was available. Bethlehem, where the real action is, required an advance ticket to the service at the Church of the Nativity. That left Jerusalem. With a group of similarly minded friends we boarded a bus to the epicenter of the three greatest monotheistic faiths of the world.
Right off the bat, the night promised to be interesting. December weather in Israel is mild, to say the least. The last 2 weeks had been sunny and warm, about 70°F. Christmas Eve, and God decided to water the plants. It was pouring. In the time it took us to debark from the bus and cross the street we were all soaked to the bone. Jerusalem is known for its’ cold nights, and at 10:30 pm in the rain it very quickly became frigid.
But nevermind that! It was Christmas Eve! In Jerusalem! The rain ended our preplanned leisurely walking tour of some famous sites. Our new goal was to find a church and witness the Midnight Mass. This turned out to be harder than expected. The Old City of Jerusalem, in the best of times, can be confusing and claustrophobic. We set out through the winding stone paths; weaving and turning , our shoes squelching on the glistening stone worn smooth by Crusader’s feet. How many millions of people before me had walked these same paths in the rain, all the while thinking “Damn, this is slippery.”?
Above us were medieval arches strung with gaily colored Christmas lights. We followed the sound of singing for a long while before we reached a dead end, face to face with a loudspeaker piping Christmas carols in Arabic. The sound echoed hollowly on the stone walls, almost drowned out by the fat rods of moisture drumming down on us. The street was deserted, except for an occasional figure hurrying by, huddled under an umbrella. We tried the doors of three churches only to find that they were locked for private services.
We laughed and joked, but there was no denying the eerie stillness, the tinny, indecipherable carols, the cold wet rain plastering my face as we turned yet another corner, found another dead end. Finally we reached the Hagia Sion, a Benedictine Abbey just outside the city walls, famed as the burial place of the Virgin Mary. There, we were told, the doors were always open. We entered the Church dripping, and were greeted kindly by a monk in long black robes. Making our way inside the packed interior, I was struck by the severe majesty of the building. We had just enough time to find a spot against a wall when the service began, at the stroke of midnight.
Angelic voices lifted sonorously to the ceiling, as a procession of white-robed monks made their way down the aisle. The service was held in a mixture of Hebrew, Latin and German, the native tongue of this order of Benediction monks. Many in the crowd joined in in German, many bent their heads in the prayers of their language. Many, like me, were rapt with attention at this beautiful custom not our own. I watched, and listened, humming along to the familiar chords of “Silent Night”, not understanding the words but feeling their beauty all the same.