The first time I experienced Christmas in Israel I felt a void. Growing up in America, it was the first time in my life that December 25 was treated as a regular day. The sun was shining. Stores, restaurants and offices were open. Not one Santa Claus was in sight. I was no longer destined solely for Chinese food with a movie on the side. I no longer felt a sense of being the lone Jew during Christmas, because I no longer felt a sense of Christmas. So why was the only thing I wanted Chinese food, a movie and Mariah Carey on repeat? And how did Tel Aviv not have a Chinese restaurant to nourish my appetite for such sweet and sour nostalgia?
The concept was unfamiliar to me. I had always loved Christmas in America. It was the time of year for cheery music, chilly weather, bright decorations, comfort food, good friends, cozy moments, pumpkin spice lattes, and secret Santa present exchanges. It was also a time for excessive spending, eating and drinking, high stress shopping situations, and annual family drama. I somehow missed it all.
Throughout my seven years in Israel since that first Christmas, I see more cheer each year, especially in Israel’s secular city of Tel Aviv. For many, celebrating Christmas in Tel Aviv has become a way to honor the traditions and cultures of the thousands of internationals who have landed here, with the hopes of creating that warm, familiar feeling that new immigrants may crave this time of year. For others, it’s simply a reason to gather together and celebrate. A birthday is a birthday after all. From Christmas themed dance parties to Christmas feasts to a Christmas Eve tour of Bethlehem, the secular Israel seems to be catching the holiday spirit.
Of course, with the melting pot of cultures, religions, and visitors to Israel, Christmas can be a meaningful experience for Christians, celebrating the birth of Jesus in his birthplace. Across the country in select cities, churches light up with midnight mass, tree decorations and Christmas markets. Haifa, a northern coastal city, celebrates and gives respect to Christmas, Chanukah and the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha simultaneously. In places like Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem, there are Christmas parades to accompany the streets ridden with tinsel and lights, though compared to walking the streets of New York city, there is a distinct contrast in decorative joy.
My first Christmas in Israel, I felt a void. Today, I feel a warm sense of nostalgic satisfaction, perhaps because I can choose to play my South Jersey radio station from here. Whether because of religion, tradition, culture, nostalgia, celebration or a simple love of Mariah Carey, it doesn’t seem to matter. The Christmas cheer is being spread, and wherever and however you are choosing to celebrate, Israel is celebrating with you from here.