Holiday Season in the Holy Land: Thoughts, Ideas, and Tips on Travel

     The arrival once more of the winter holiday season evokes thoughts of snow and cold nights spent with family and friends – of times of cheer, rest, and meaning. There is perhaps no better way to appreciate the spirit of the holiday season than to travel to the sites we remember during it – and for me, at least, the unique chance to take a trip to the Holy Land during this time truly proved a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

     Travelling in the Holy Land evokes memories and recalls moments of a past shared by so many distinct peoples and cultures, each bound by the recognition of the significance of the land. Thus, travel during the time of the holiday season – when Christmas and Hanukah, among others, bring light to ancient cities made even more brilliant by their spiritual significance – offers a terrific opportunity to experience a variety of cultures and celebrations taking place in the Holy Land. Such an experience is nearly indescribable, so in the following paragraphs I will simply suggest a few ways to best explore during this time, in the hope that this will help in the creation of the readers’ own imagination and memories. 

     The best way to experience the holiday spirit and season is to embrace it from the moment of arrival. After passing into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, be sure to sample the sufganiot – jelly-filled, donut-like pastries made for the Jewish holiday of Hanukah – that are in abundance. While in Tel Aviv, a visit to the Eretz Yisrael (‘Land of Israel’) Museum, where the history of the nation is told in coins dating even before the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, proves a worthwhile and unique introduction to the history of the Holy Land. Visiting during the holiday of Hanukah, which celebrates the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid Empire and the rededication of the Second Temple, provides the perfect opportunity to view Hasmonean coins in the museum minted during the limited period of Judean self-rule in the Holy Land. 

     Leaving history temporarily for the vibrancy of modern Tel Aviv, it is worth spending time simply exploring the city, either by foot or vehicle. Then, a short ride eastward to Jerusalem marks the beginning of a voyage to the heart of the Holy Land. 

     The focus of Jerusalem – central to all three major Abrahamic faiths – is the Old City, known in Hebrew as Ha-ir Ha-atikah. Entering the City by the Jaffa Gate feels very much like stepping into another world. At the entrance to the Gate itself, bakers and merchants offer pomegranates and unusually-shaped sesame bread to passersby. To the right, the imposing Tower of David looms over the Old City walls as it has since the time of its construction nearly five hundred years ago. The Tower – like the city walls and almost the entirety of the city itself – is constructed from Jerusalem Stone and gives off an ethereal glow as night falls. 

     Any trip to the Old City should include a visit to the Western Wall (known in Hebrew as the Kotel), the only remaining retaining (or outer) wall of the Second Temple. The holiest site in Judaism, the Wall serves as the focal point for prayer; visitors from around the world, including the Pope, partake in the tradition of placing notes with prayers into the cracks between the huge slabs of stone that make up the Wall. Religious groups often hold prayer services before the Wall, and it is not uncommon to see uniformed soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) praying alongside religious Jews clothed in traditional conservative dress. For thousands of years, Jews in exile longed to worship at the Wall; since the conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Kotel is once more open to Jewish prayer. 

     Behind the Western Wall and atop the platform known as the Temple Mount (Har ha-Bayit in Hebrew, or Haram al-Sharif in Arabic) rises the famed golden dome of the Dome of the Rock. This site, sacred to Muslims, serves as a reminder of Jerusalem’s unique role as the confluence of faiths. It is on the Temple Mount that Jews believe the Holy of Holies, the resting place of the Divine Presence on Earth, was situated, and from where some Muslims hold Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the Temple Mount, too, sits Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest mosques in Islam. 

     From the Kotel area, a walk to the Christian Quarter of the Old City leads to some of the most sacred Christian sites in the Holy Land. It is here that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the site of Golgotha, stands at the end of the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. Visiting the Church, illuminated by the hundreds of candles lit by pilgrims and visitors, is a remarkable experience. On Christmas Eve, Churches throughout Jerusalem are filled with worshippers from around the world who long to experience the candlelight services in the city. 

     If time permits, the Old City is replete with streets and sites rich in history to discover. Among these is the Tomb of David, where there stands a pillared hall believed by some to mark the location of the Last Supper. Other sites worth visiting include the underground excavations and shops that make up the Jewish Quarter, and parts of the Arab Quarter. Here, shopkeepers sit as they have for centuries, ready to peddle wares to those who walk along the ancient alleyways. 

     As dusk begins in the Old City after a day of discovery, the windows of homes and shops glow with the light of the Chanukia, a small candelabrum used to commemorate the rededication of the larger Menorah in the Second Temple after the Hasmonean victory. Throughout both the Holy Land and the Diaspora, Jews light eight candles in succession (one per night during the eight-day holiday) as a representation of the miracle of the Temple’s rededication. 

     The Old City serves as the focal point of a much broader and diverse modern city; it is well worth exploring beyond the walls, whether by heading to the expansive Mamilla Mall that features candle-lighting for the holidays, or the Israel Museum, home to an unparalleled collection that ranges from archaeological findings of the Holy Land to modern Israeli art. In Jerusalem, as with the nation on a broader scale, modernity and antiquity interact in a remarkable manner, creating a unique symbiosis of the spiritual and physical. 

     Regardless of how the time is spent, a trip to the Holy Land is undoubtedly a singular and deeply memorable opportunity. To go during the winter holiday season – when the nation’s character as a home for followers of different faiths who share common values is prominently displayed – only heightens the special nature of the experience. And, if feasible, it is an experience well worth having.

By Cygnet