Christmas in the Holy Land


Young Saints in Israel find scriptures come alive, especially in December.

The sun arched down through the sky on this December evening in Israel while Ian and Krista Boyd watched. The sky was flooded with brilliant golden light, tinged with orange, just as the sun touched the edge of the earth. It looked as if the sun had melted, washing its liquid colors across the horizon. The silhouetted town of Bethlehem was etched against the sky, a simple village yet magnificent in the sunset.

An old shepherd, stooped with age, walked slowly across the rocky fields, leading a dozen or so shaggy sheep across the uneven terrain. As he leaned into his staff he seemed ageless, as if he could have lived this year or many centuries ago. Ian, 14, and his sister Krista, 16, watched the old man and the sheep disappear from their view.

Ian and Krista live in Israel. They moved there from Salt Lake City two and a half years ago with their family. They’ve found that living in this new land has not only been an adventure; it’s brought the scriptures to life for them. This evening they walked past olive trees in the shepherd’s fields. That same type of tree is also found in the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Savior suffered just before his crucifixion.

This night they were thinking of some other shepherds who had been in these fields some 20 centuries ago—the night when the angel of the Lord came to the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. The angel said to them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).

That night the angels sang praises to God in the shepherds’ field, full of joy that the Savior was to be born, in Bethlehem. Now, Ian and Krista gathered with the handful of Church members from Jerusalem to do that same thing—sing praises to God and rejoice that the Savior was born in that tiny village on the horizon, Bethlehem.

As the sunset passed into the cool, dark night, Ian and Krista gathered closer around a giant bonfire with a younger brother and sister, Aaron, 11, and Tia, 7. Branch members warmed their hands by the fire and chatted, looking up occasionally into the sky, where the stars were starting to pop out like diamonds against a black velvet-lined jewel case. It was one of those nights when the peaceful stillness of the night and the joyful purpose of their meeting together drew a veil of quiet solemnity over those gathered together. It was once again a holy night.

A prayer was offered. Then a branch member spoke about the significance of these fields where they were gathered. These were the fields where the widowed Ruth had gleaned wheat after faithfully following her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Bethlehem. Ruth was converted and joined Naomi in worshipping the God of Israel. She married Boaz and was the great-grandmother of David, through whose lineage the Savior was born.

The branch president started to read Luke’s account of the Savior’s birth, how Joseph went to Bethlehem to pay his taxes and how Mary, who was expecting a child, came too.

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

The shepherds, after hearing the powerful message brought to them by the angel and after hearing the heavenly chorus rejoicing over the birth of the Savior, went quickly to Bethlehem to see the new-born Savior: “They came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. … And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:16, 17, 20). They knew who this child was, and they returned thanks to God for the great privilege they had had of seeing the Son of God.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.” In the cool, clear night air, the fire popping and scenting the evening, the branch members sang songs of praise, rejoicing at the birth of the Savior—their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Christmas in the Holy Land is wonderful, but different than they thought it might be, say Ian and Krista. And it’s certainly not like it is in the United States, they say.

“Here the whole country doesn’t celebrate Christmas, just a small minority, so it’s not a big celebration for most of the people in the country,” says Krista. “The Christian Arabs celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, and the Arab villages might have nativity scenes, but Christmas doesn’t surround you like it does in the States. And there’s no feeling of commercialism here.”

Ian agrees. “Christmas doesn’t have the glamour here that it has in the States. There are no Christmas lights, and people aren’t wishing you Merry Christmas all over the place, and the stores aren’t geared for Christmas. It’s like a surprise, the way it comes up, because there aren’t the things here to remind you that it’s Christmas except the calendar,” he says.

“But I like it here because it’s the place where it all happened. There’s not the hurry of the Christmas season, and the stores aren’t crowded. For me it’s become more of a spiritual time instead of a materialistic time, and it’s easier to remember the real meaning of Christmas,” says Ian.

Many Church members in Israel have found that their Christmas celebration comes from within—you carry it with you, inside, says one woman. The home and the branch become the focus of the Christmas celebration. And your feelings toward the Savior and your actions toward others build the spirit of Christmas within, she says.

“We make Christmas in our home,” says Krista. “Mom has spices cooking on the stove the day before Christmas, so it smells like Christmas. It’s peaceful and quiet, with Christmas music playing in the background. This year we didn’t give a lot of presents. Each of us gave one present to every other person in our family. There weren’t a lot of gifts, but we tried to give something that the other person really wanted.

“This year, instead of attacking our presents, we were handing out presents to each other and watching everyone open theirs. It’s more fun to get excited for what someone else receives than for what you get,” she said. “I remember times when I was younger, coming back to school after Christmas and all my friends telling me what they got. I would feel bad because I didn’t get such and such a thing. Here you don’t have to worry about that.”

Part of the family celebration this year was a little black treasure box with gold writing on it. It was empty at first. Each of the family members drew the name of another person in the family. “We would try to do a lot of nice things for that person, like give them a few treats, make their bed, clean their room, things like that. Then each time we did that, we’d secretly put a coin in the treasure box and try to fill it up with good deeds,” says Ian. On Christmas Day it was filled with golden shekels.

What has being in Israel meant for Ian and Krista?

“I’ve learned a lot more about the Savior,” says Ian. “Not just about the Christmas story because I’ve seen the place he was born and where he was buried, but I’ve gained a greater knowledge of the Bible. We study it in Hebrew in the schools, so my knowledge of the scriptures has really grown since I’ve been here.”

“I feel closer to the Savior since living here,” says Krista. “You can walk around and maybe two miles away are the shepherds’ fields or the Church of the Nativity, where they think the Savior was born. All you have to do is catch a bus to the Garden Tomb to see where he was resurrected. It’s really exciting to be able to go to all these places that you read about in the Bible and to feel the spirit that’s there. Even though there’s a spirit of strife and fighting in Israel, you can still feel the spirit of the Savior through it all, around everywhere. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

[photos] Photography by Kathleen Lubeck

[illustrations] Paintings by Carl Bloch