The northern Israeli city of Nazareth prepares for Christmas on December 20. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Nazareth: No Room at That Inn, Either

It’s not Bethlehem, but Israel’s largest Arab city and the place where Jesus spent his childhood is giving it a run for its Christmas-time bragging rights

Christmas is a special time in the Holy Land, where it all began some two millennia ago.

In the Palestinian Territories, the focus, naturally, is on Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. In Israel, though, Nazareth – the childhood home of Jesus and the country’s largest Arab city – has in recent years enjoyed a kind of rebirth, largely due to the winter festivities.

Nazareth is home to some 77,000 people, 31% of whom are Christian, according to official statistics. But during the Christmas season, it displays a dizzying mixture of eclectic traditions and influences as hundreds of thousands of visitors converge on it.

Multilingual Santas greet visitors of all religions on streets where it is likely that Jesus literally walked. Celebrations range from the most deeply religious to the purely secular.

This year, the festivities began with Christmas Nights, a nocturnal street fair of concerts and colorful displays that ran from December 1 to December 7.

The lighting of a towering Christmas tree, an exciting event accompanied by music and an impressive fireworks display, is a perennial favorite, attracting more than 100,000 people. It was held this year on December 6 just outside Mary’s Well, where, according to believers, the Angel Gabriel informed Mary that she would bear the baby Jesus.

The Christmas market is another beloved Nazareth tradition. Running this year from December 17 to 22, it featured local produce, crafts, food, concerts and children’s activities, and was a magnet for tourists, both foreign and domestic.

Christmas Eve is marked by a festive parade from Mary’s Well down Paul VI Street, another fireworks display and, finally, Midnight Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest Christian sanctuary in the Middle East.

Christmas Day will feature more Masses, and in Nazareth, as for Christians elsewhere, it will be a day of family gatherings.

Salem, a spokesman for the Nazareth Municipality, described as “unusually large” the number of visitors this year.

“Nazareth is on the map now more than ever, and attracting a lot of media attention,” he told The Media Line.

Salem gave another hint of the city’s heightened prominence.

“Mayor Ali Sallam returned just yesterday from Rome, where he had an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican,” he said. “The mayor invited the pope to visit Nazareth in the year 2020…. The pope promised he would visit, but the date has not yet been set.”

When contacted by The Media Line, several local hotels reported that there was no room at the inn – accommodations in the city were completely booked.

Bashar, a receptionist at Villa Nazareth Hotel, a short walk from Mary’s Well, said he was born and raised in the city and has observed the celebrations as they have steadily grown.

“On the one hand, it’s very good to see that many people,” he told The Media Line. “On the other hand, the city – particularly the roads – cannot handle such large crowds.”

Razi Rizik, an owner of the hotel, agreed.

“Nazareth isn’t suitable for this amount of people in terms of the [infrastructure],” he noted to The Media Line.

“Local people from Nazareth invest here, but… the Tourism Ministry doesn’t care about the city…. Nazareth needs help. It needs people, and especially the government, to come in and invest.”

Rizik added, however, that he always enjoys the city and the birthday celebration for its most famous resident.

“Nazareth is a peaceful city. It always was,” he said.

“Christmas in Nazareth is beautiful. You can see people from all religions coming here. Last week, we had more than 100,000 people – Jews, Christians, Muslims, everybody coming here together,” he said. “Everything went very well.”

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