It’s pretty weird being in Israel during Advent. No Christmas trees, ornaments, carols, presents, sales, cookies…In some ways, this is a great relief, especially for us as parents, because we have always tried to buck the materialism of Christmas in the U.S. No need to “simplify the season” this year! And I have never identified myself as a real “Christmas person.” So I’m a little surprised to find myself feeling alienated without any of the familiar landmarks leading up to Christmas that usually so shape our Decembers: Lessons & Carols, holiday parties and lunches, my parents’ Solstice Ball, trying to outwit holiday traffic up the East Coast, etc. Without these things on the calendar, time feels formless and I feel lost.
Is this how my Jewish friends feel when they are accosted with Christmas carols and Jesus images for two months every year? I’m not sure; does the presence of something you don’t believe feel like the absence of something you do believe?
Of course, there are small pockets of Christmas spirit here. They just feel different than they would at home.
For example, Santa made an appearance at the JAIS holiday party and posed for pictures. Note the straggly beard, the raffishly unzipped shirt, and the lack of accoutrements. The basement of a school auditorium was festive enough for my kids. For the record, they seem to be adjusting a lot better to this Israeli Christmas then their parents are.
Or, speaking of straggly, let’s discuss our Christmas tree. For months, I had heard that the Jerusalem Municipality gives out free Christmas trees. I thought that was very sweet (and a little bizarre, given that the city is too poor to pick up traffic or open libraries for more than a couple half days a week). But then I found out you had to show Israeli ID to qualify for a tree, and Terence kept expressing his preference for live trees instead of artificial. We couldn’t do what we sometimes do in Delaware — go out and chop down our own tree — that’s against the law in this desert country. At home we get a giant tree to fit in our huge living room, and setting up the tree is always the occasion for the biggest marital fight of the year. This year, there was no lugging involved. Terence went around the corner to the garden store and found the biggest, most Christmas-y tree he could find, which was not saying much on either dimension. And yet I have hardly ever seen him so proud. These skinny branches can’t hold up regular ornaments, but luckily the kids like making popcorn strings and paper crafts. Our next challenge is hunting for Christmas lights — I hope we can find them without going to Bethlehem or Nazareth, but that’s always an option!
Of course there are ways that Christmas resonates uniquely in this part of the world. Yesterday we visited friends in Ein Kerem, a gorgeous village that is the birthplace of John the Baptist. We had a barbeque in the wadi, listened to church bells, and thought about John, so central to the Advent season. And we bought a nativity set from Bethlehem, hard carved from olive wood. A friend from book group sells these fair trade to benefit non-profit organizations on the West Bank. It is already Margaret’s favorite play thing. (So far we have lost one shepherd’s staff, but at least we can still find Jesus). And we are all counting the days until my sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew and parents come for the holiday, when we’ll show them Bethlehem and the Old City and all the other places we have discovered here. I have no doubt that we’ll look back on this Christmas with great fondness, as weird as it feels right now.