K K K S TA

Holidays and Festivals in Jerusalem

Home to a mix of cultures, all three of the monotheistic religions as well as a secular contingent, Jerusalem’s annual calendar is rich in diverse, festive and colorful holidays and festivals. You’ll want to keep an eye on our regularly updated events calendar for holiday-related events, but this article provides you with an overview and backdrop to most of the major holidays and festivals you can expect to experience in Jerusalem.

Jewish Holidays

Purim

The city of Jerusalem is considered the most intense place to experience the Jewish religious holidays.  The holiday of Purim, generally in March, marks the deliverance of the Jews in the ancient Persian Empire from an evil man named Haman who aimed to destroy the Jewish people. The holiday is celebrated with reading of the story in the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther), wearing of masks and fancy dress, giving of gifts (mishloach manot) as well as charity, a festive meal (seuda) and eating delicious triangular shaped cookies (hamantaschen).

There are many fun and creative ways to experience Purim in Jerusalem, and many Purim parties around the city for those that use the holiday as a reason for a night out.

Passover

One of the most significant and famous of the Jewish holidays, the holiday of Passover (Pesach) is a celebration of the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The holiday usually takes place in April and is celebrated with a festive meal (known as a seder) that commemorates the Exodus. During the meal, among other things, the story of the Jews leaving Egypt is recounted from a book called the Hagadah, and matzah (unleavened bread) is eaten. Tourists may want to take part in one of the communal seders around Jerusalem.

One of the three biblically-mandated festivals, known as the Shalosh Regalim, on which Jews were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, you won’t want to miss out on the impressive priestly blessing (Birkat Hakohanim) at the Western Wall during the intermediate days of Passover.

Lag B’Omer

The holiday of Lag B’Omer, all about bonfires, takes place 33 days after the first day of Passover, and marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a famous kabbalist sage. The holiday also commemorates the famous Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire. The bonfires are lit to remind one of the bonfires that were lit at the time, and of the “light” which emanated from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Kids in particular enjoy this holiday and it’s a great excuse to get out your barbecue tongs, marshmallows and enjoy.

Shavuot

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot marks the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Jews and is also a day which is marked by mass consumption of dairy products, making it a delicious event for all. On Shavuot night, there is a practice of staying up all night to learn Jewish texts and in Jerusalem the night is rounded off with the convergence of thousands of Jews at the Western Wall in the Old City. The priestly blessing (Birkat Hakohanim) also takes place on Shavuot.

Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated with a festive meal that includes symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey for a sweet year. Many events with the theme of fresh beginnings take place around the city. Watch this space for more details soon.

Sukkot

The holiday of Sukkot, known as the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, is a joyful Jewish holiday that takes place after the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Generally in late September or October, the holiday lasts seven days in Israel and involves dwelling — or at least eating —  in a temporary structure covered with plant material such as palm leaves. The sukkah is intended to remind one of the fragile dwellings the Jews lived in during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and acts as a reminder that one’s permanent homes provide just an illusion of security. On each day of the holiday, blessings are recited over various leaves and fruits, known as the four species. Look out for an article on Sukkot soon.

Hanukkah

Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah in December is an eight-day Jewish holiday that marks the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. Jews light a Hanukkia (also known as a menorah) for eight nights with one candle added each night of the holiday. The tradition is to eat oily foods in honor of the oil used by the Jewish High Priest in the days of the Temple. Jerusalem is undoubtedly one of the most special places to experience this holiday with an abundance of Hanukkah lights lighting up the dark winter nights, and endless bakeries going out of their way to come up with original and scrumptious doughnuts (sufganiot).

Tu Bishvat

The Jewish New Year of the Trees, Tu Bishvat, in late January or early February, is all about celebrating greenery and nature. The holiday is a perfect excuse to plant a tree or simply take in some of the special and unique green spots in Jerusalem.

Christian Holidays

Easter

A Christian holiday and festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion at Calvary (as described in the New Testament), Easter in Jerusalem is a special experience with the unique opportunity to commemorate the resurrection right in the heart of the area Jesus was buried and believed to have come back. Catholics may want to celebrate at the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, where they believe Jesus’s burial and resurrection took place, whereas Baptists will likely head to the Garden Tomb.

Christmas

Christmas is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus  and is a widely celebrated holiday that takes place on December 25th for most Christians, while others celebrate slightly later. Some of the fun traditions associated with the holiday include Christmas presents under the Christmas tree, Christmas carols and more.

Many of the major Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and surrounds are amazing to visit over the Christmas period. These include the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, 6 miles south of Jerusalem, which is particularly special on Christmas Eve. Visitors to Bethlehem can experience the once-in-a-lifetime annual Midnight Mass in the Basilica of the Nativity (tickets only).

A variety of guided tours will help you explore all the major sites and attractions during the holiday. The Old City of Jerusalem half day tour will take you through the historical landmarks of the Old City while the Jerusalem & Bethlehem day tour will make you enjoy both the Old City and The birthplace of Jesus Christ.

More about Christmas in Jerusalem and Bethlehem >>

Muslim Holidays

The Muslim holidays can be experienced largely in the eastern sections of Jerusalem where most of the city’s Muslim population lives. To feel the ambience of the various holidays, you’ll want to head to local mosques, the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and the famous Dome of the Rock.

Most people are familiar with the month-long fast of Ramadan, during which Muslims refrain from eating from sunup to sundown. The fast of Ramadan culminates in a three-day celebration, Eid ul-Fitr. Read more about other exciting Muslim holidays to experience in Jerusalem: Laylat al-Miraj, Eid Al-Adha, Ashura and the Islamic New Year.

Secular and Foreign Holidays

New Year’s Eve (Sylvester)

If you like to usher in the New Year (as per the Gregorian calendar) with pizzazz, then get some tips and ideas here about how to celebrate New Year’s in Jerusalem. Many of the major clubs and bars, from the swanky to student-style, have New Years-themed parties, and there are generally more refined sit-down dinner events at luxury hotels. In Israel it’s called Sylvester, so as not to confused it with the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.

St. Valentine’s Day & Patrick’s Day

You might be surprised to find out that even St. Valentine’s Day & St. Patrick’s Day are celebrated in Jerusalem. The former on February 14th and the latter on March 17th are great excuses for taking advantage of romantic venues and nightlife in Jerusalem.  Celebrate with your loved ones, and drink like the Irish – what could be more fun amidst antiquity as a backdrop?

Thanksgiving

Americans and Canadians who can’t go without commemorating the holiday of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November can celebrate in Jerusalem. There are usually many Thanksgiving meals open to the public as well as other Thanksgiving-themed events on the go. Expect the usual trimmings –Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.