Two and a half months since the outbreak of the Gaza war, the end of December is in sight, and Christmas is around the corner. We visited Nazareth, the tourism capital of northern Israel to see if, despite the security situation, the Christmas spirit can be felt in the city where, according to the New Testament, the Annunciation occurred, and Jesus Christ grew up.
It’s late afternoon, the winter sun is pleasant, the sky is almost cloudless, and there are plenty of parking spaces opposite the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, one of the holiest sites for Christians worldwide. The white church is built next to an ancient spring where, according to belief, the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God.
The famous plaza in front of the church is empty, the many shops and various restaurants are closed, and there’s a palpable sense of gloom in the air.
In better days before the war and COVID-19 pandemic, the area was bustling with buses of tourists, colorful stalls selling traditional sweets and Christian souvenirs, and the sweet smell of warm sugar in the air – but now, everything is quiet and abandoned.
Nazareth’s tourism director, Tarek Schada is deeply concerned about the state of his beloved city and the country at large. “Usually, at Christmas, this place is so full there’s no room to move,” he reminds us.
“The roads, the restaurants, the hotels, and the guest houses in the old city – everything was packed. After COVID ended, we started to return to normal last year – and then the war came and destroyed everything. Tourists who came to Israel have gone home, and those who booked for the peak months until the end of December have canceled and not arrived. We even have cancellations for early 2024.
“It’s very sad; we hope that next year things will return to normal and peace will bring back the tourists from abroad, as well as domestic tourism. Usually, we have Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze visitors here – this year it won’t happen.”
How does the war directly affect the residents of the city?
“Nazareth is an Israeli city, and of course, the situation affects us. The feelings are difficult; who likes war? We want peace, tranquility and complete equality. We want to live normal lives. The tourism industry is the first to be affected and the last to recover fully; it’s going to be a sad Christmas.”
We enter the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, currently undergoing extensive and welcome renovations. Samir Gargous, a fourth-generation Nazareth resident and active in the church’s local committee, came to pray but is worried, not just about the lack of tourists and holiday atmosphere—his son has been called up for reserve duty and is fighting in Gaza.
“I’m a local,” he says, “We were born here, we belong to this country, and I came to pray for peace. No one wants war. I hope it will be good for the country and all its people, and that all the hostages and soldiers will return home safely.”
Gargous sadly points to the empty tree stand where, during a standard Christmas, a giant and decorated Christmas tree, one of the central symbols of the Christian holiday and a popular attraction for tourists, would proudly stand.
“Due to the war and the hard times, we didn’t erect the church’s Christmas tree this year, which is considered the tallest in the Middle East – 150 feet tall. It’s an attraction that draws tourists from all over the world and visitors from Israel. Everyone would come to take pictures – and this year there will be no tree. It will be a sad Christmas for everyone.”
In the empty square outside the Church of the Annunciation, we meet Ramzi Tura, the owner of a small restaurant that, in better days, was busy with customers enjoying traditional holiday sweets, but is now deserted.
“We wait all year for December, but this year there’s no Christmas spirit, and everything is closed. Yesterday, a group of Israeli Jewish tourists came, but there was no Christmas tree, nothing, and they were very disappointed,” he laments. “We’re hoping maybe there will be a small tree inside the church after all. There’s no festive atmosphere, nothing, just depression.”
His wife Salam adds, “During Christmas, the children are happy, laughing, buying sweets, gathering around the tree and there are stalls, but now you don’t feel Christmas at all.”
We continue our sad tour following the remnants of Christmas in Nazareth and ascend the hill toward the impressive Basilica of the Annunciation, sacred to Catholics. Here lie the sacred remnants of the ancient home of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
According to Catholic belief, here (and not at the Greek spring) the Angel Gabriel announced the imminent birth of the Son of God. In normal times, colorful groups of pilgrims from all over the world come here, including devout Catholics from Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Far East. Sadly, in the wake of the war, everything is abandoned, and there are no tourists.
This is my first time visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation alone, in complete solitude. This international tourist attraction’s silence and emptiness starkly contrast the joyous Christmas atmosphere that should envelop the place.
An endearing American Franciscan monk in traditional purple and brown attire tells me he misses the tourists and the magical holiday spirit. “My family is very worried about me being in Israel during war. I try to reassure them that here in Nazareth, there are no missile attacks and the place is safe. This year, we will celebrate the holiday only with the local community and without tourists.”
As night falls on Nazareth’s old city, instead of the twinkling lights of joy and traditional Christmas food stalls, there are desolate roads, gloom and abandoned streets.
Just before I’m about to sadly declare the end of the tour and a failure to find Christmas spirit in Nazareth, Schada makes a few calls, and we park our car in front of THE BLEND hotel of the Northern Golden Crown hotel chain.
In a typical December, just before Christmas, this hotel would be bursting with tourists from all over the world, but now it’s filled with displaced persons – Arabs and Jews, residents of Kiryat Shmona, Arab al-Aramshe and other communities from the border area with Lebanon who were forced to leave their homes and have been staying unwillingly as refugees in the hotel for over two months.
It turns out a group of volunteers from the Church of the Holy Spirit in Nof Hgalil decided to come to Nazareth to try to bring joy to the children of the evacuees, and several excited men dressed as Santa Claus, complete with red coats and hats, bells, fake white beards and sacks full of gifts, are organizing a party here.
The enthusiastic Santas surround us with dancing, enter the lobby in a joyful procession and hand out bags with gifts and lots of chocolate to the children. A volunteer dressed as Santa Claus, sans beard, shares, “We came to bring a smile to the children, a bit of music, a bit of joy, and we pray that the war will end and the families will receive permission to return to their homes and there will be peace.”
Rena Raslan, a mother of young children from Kiryat Shmona and the second generation of South Lebanon Army (SLA) families who found refuge in Israel after the withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, is happy about the volunteers’ attempt to create some festive atmosphere for the sad hotel residents longing for their homes and routine.
“We’ve been out of our homes for months, and it’s very tough,” she shares. “I miss the clean air of Kiryat Shmona, being free. We’re hosted very nicely, and there are amazing people here, but I want to go home. The children were so happy when Santa Claus arrived; they were excited, look how they’re smiling, and I want to thank all the volunteers who came to cheer us up.”
Paulina Arouch, a resident of Kiryat Shmona who was evacuated from her home, also came to the hotel’s lobby to participate in the modest celebration.
“Living in a hotel might be okay for a couple of days, but I’ve been here for two months, and it’s incredibly tough; I really want to go home. I’m a Jewish guest in Nazareth, and I feel excellent here. Even though we’re hosted in the best way possible, and there are wonderful people here, I deeply miss my private corner.”
Here in the hotel lobby is the only place in the city where I found a Christmas atmosphere, isn’t that strange?
“Not really. Because of the war and the mourning and the hard times we’ve been through in Israel since October 7, the residents of Nazareth, Muslims, and Christians, say: ‘This is our war too!’ and decided not to decorate the city this year.”
When do you think you’ll go home?
“If it were allowed, then today.”