A little Christmas atmosphere in downtown Jerusalem

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The YMCA Jerusalem Christmas Market started on December 2 and continued through the weekend. It’s an annual event the YMCA has held every year since 2016. Last year it was canceled due to COVID, which means that this is the first time in two years.

Located on King David Street, right across the street from the King David Hotel, the YMCA is a large Christian building right in the middle of Jerusalem. Designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, who also designed the Empire State Building, it was hailed in international press for its elegant arches, domes and tower when it opened in 1933. At the entrance is a quote in Hebrew, Arabic and English from the dedication address of Lord Allenby:

“Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.”

I spoke with some of the vendors and staff, who confirmed the same sentiment. One said, “I am Muslim, and many who work here are Christians and Jews. That’s the essence of the YMCA here.” Another one said, “I am Jewish, and I worked together with a Muslim co-worker here to prepare the Christmas decoration for this event.”

Since I had taken the day off for Hanukkah and my teenage kids were away in our congregation’s youth camp, I brought my eleven-year-old son to the market. As we arrived to the large courtyard of the YMCA, we saw a huge inflatable Santa Claus, a “snow machine” (which really sprayed some soapy white substance), large tents for vendors, and a huge Christmas tree in the middle of the square. Christmas music blasted from loudspeakers, and a man dressed as Santa Claus came up to us and gave my son a piece of chocolate.

There were two tents (heated, according to the advertisement). One for food and the other for general vendors. In the food tent, it seemed most places were about chocolates and Christmas cookies, which didn’t bother me at all. Gingerbread cookies and hot mulled wine? Yes, please. In the other tent, there were vendors with gifts, candles, souvenirs, and Christmas decorations.

Despite the lack of snow, they did a great job of conveying an atmosphere of Christmas, and I’m sure many Israelis felt as if they stepped through to another dimension. It almost felt as if you were in a European or North American country – but still with this Jerusalemite Middle Eastern edge to it. Most people spoke Hebrew or Arabic, and you could purchase both Arab coffee and baklawa in the food court. Some vendors sold typical Jerusalem souvenirs that you find year-round in the Old City. Picking the best of both worlds in this way is often what Jerusalem does best.

My son’s eyes lit up wherever we went, and he spent some significant time in the vendor tent picking out things to buy for the money his grandparents sent him for Christmas. Of course. I also spoiled him rotten with sugary drinks and cotton candy. He’ll be high on sugar for the foreseeable future, but it’s only Christmas once a year. There was a children’s show too, but we skipped it as he is a bit too old for that.

If there’s one remark I can add, it would be that for a Christian place, there was very little Christianity in this Christmas. There was a lot of focus on Santa, Christmas trees, and snow. Except for one vendor who sold nativity scenes, I don’t think I noticed even one mention or nod to the birth of Jesus. The Christmas songs on the loudspeakers were also more on the American secular side. Very few traditional Christmas carols about the birth of Christ, and instead a lot of Rudolf, Mommy kissing Santa Claus, and rocking around the Christmas tree.

We left the premise about three hours after we arrived, and it was with great difficulty I could drag the kid home (I promised him pancakes). All in all, a great experience, and if you live in the Jerusalem area and miss the typical Christmas atmosphere you get at this time of the year in other countries, the YMCA market is highly recommended.