“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is perhaps the most commonly quoted biblical phrase among native Nazarenes, especially Arab Christians, who often deliver the words tongue-in-cheek to foreign audiences. The infamous proclamation from the book of John is arguably the biggest understatement in human history.
Today, Nazareth is known as the City of Annunciation in recognition of the announcement the angel Gabriel delivered to the virgin Mary of her impending role as the mother of the Christ. It also is recognized as the hometown of Jesus, the greatest “good thing” ever to exist. The town once known for literally nothing at all, now is renowned as the epicenter of the greatest story ever told.
The biblical Christmas story centers around two cities: Bethlehem and Nazareth. Ironically, today both are Arab cities. Although geographically located in land controlled by the modern-day state of Israel, they are inhabited by Arabs.
My hometown of Nazareth has a population of roughly 80,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom are Muslim and one-third traditional Christian (Catholic/Greek Orthodox). Despite the minority Christian population, it still is considered the largest concentration of Arab Christians in the Holy Land and is known as the “Arab Capital of Israel.”
Christmas in the city
Christmas in modern Israel is peculiar, almost a “blink and you’ll miss it” experience. As a Jewish nation, the holiday is not officially recognized. As an Arab city, Nazareth revels in Christmas and the tide of holiday tourists it brings.
Venture five minutes outside of the city limits to Jewish-majority Nazareth-Illit and Christmas disappears. Similarly, nearby villages with mixed Muslim/Christian populations have a smaller scale observance, but the areas between are business as usual.
In Nazareth, Christmas is celebrated with an unconventional mix of Middle Eastern formality and Western consumerism. Christmas trees and gaudy Santa Clauses spring up in homes and stores. A large and colorful parade floods the streets every Christmas Eve, drawing both Muslim and Christian attendance.
Holiday pilgrims flock to the basilica and marvel and pray at Mary’s well, just a few feet from a public bus stop where Arab residents wearily await the bus after a long day of work. The supernatural and the ordinary rub shoulders on the streets of Nazareth every day.
Christmas in the family
Growing up in a mixed Greek Orthodox/Catholic household, my family observed many holiday traditions, but perhaps the most important was maayadeh, or holiday visiting. “Visiting” is a very formal affair in my culture and is closely tied to the Arab virtue of hospitality.
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During Christmas, families and extended relatives take turns hosting one another. Homes are meticulously cleaned and decorated, and family members are decked out in holiday best.
During the visit, a specific order is followed, and everything is carefully scripted, from the type of greeting—formal occasions call for men to kiss one another twice on the cheek, for example—to the type and sequence of the food served.
The end of the visit is signaled by the offering of coffee. Guests cannot politely leave until the coffee is served. All of this is understood innately by the Arab, but outsiders often struggle to grasp the complexities.
As a kid, our Christmas morning tradition was much more understated than the American Christmases I watched on TV. Arab kids generally don’t believe in Santa Claus in the same way as American kids, and I was no exception when I was young. Family members or friends dressed up as Santa to deliver one or two gifts to each child on Christmas Eve. There were no stockings or piles of gifts in the morning.
My brothers and sister and I would wake up in our shared room that doubled as the living room during the day, put on our best clothes, and walk to the Basilica of Annunciation for Christmas mass. The basilica is a striking church built over the traditional site of Mary’s home, believed to be where she received the angel’s message. It has been revered since at least the fourth century and draws many pilgrims to Nazareth each year.
For most of my young life, I climbed the stairs to the basilica, listened to the priests and then went home. I knew all about the Jesus from catechism class, yet nothing about the Jesus of the Bible. It isn’t lost on me that I spent so many years literally standing in the spot where the good news first was announced yet having no ears to hear it.
Finally seeing Jesus at Christmas
When I was a young adult, my family began watching the Jesus film as part of our Christmas tradition. At first, it was just something to entertain us while we puzzled over the chaotic holiday tourist activity outside our door. Then somehow it became more.
One day, the scene of Jesus suspended on the cross unleashed a flood of recognition within my spirit. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with the real Jesus. I became aware of my shortcomings and my need for redemption. That day, I drank from the Living Water and learned to hear the still, small voice.
Newly transformed, I joined a small but significant group of Arab Christian believers who work diligently to reclaim the spiritual landscape of Israel for Christ. These believers use their position in the community to be the hands and feet of Jesus and are especially active at Christmas, ceaselessly sharing the gospel through outreach programs and services.
I am a true child of the City of Annunciation. I now have ears to hear the everlasting announcement of good news, and I stand to proclaim it as a Nazarene, but more importantly, as one called to the cross.
This year, may we see Christmas as a divine opportunity to recognize the birth of Jesus as the ultimate annunciation of God’s love for mankind: His word made flesh.
R.E. works with Baptists in Texas as a cross-cultural mobilizer to equip churches for effective cross-cultural ministry to people of Middle Eastern background and heritage. His full name is withheld due to security issues. The views expressed are those solely of the author.