US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Quiet Christmas in the Holy Land

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Though life continues like normal in the Holy Land at this time of year, our blogger has found plenty of Christmas spirit in Israel.

By Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan

Advent is my favorite season of the year. In India, where I grew up, we were one of the few families that celebrated Christmas, and my mother made sure that we did something almost every day of Advent: the first Sunday we would bring out the Advent wreath, twenty four days before Christmas we would put up the Advent calendar, another day we would put out the empty manger. Every time we would do a “good deed,” Mom would put a handful of straw in the manger. The goal was to fill it up as much as possible so baby Jesus would have a soft bed when he was born.

In college in the U.S., the Advent season was marked by Christmas music concerts, the big tree lighting ceremony at Boston College, beautiful liturgies at Mass, and excitement at the idea of going home to India right in time for Christmas day.

The atmosphere in Israel is very different. Life continues as normal, and few people are preparing for Christmas. Unless it happens to fall on a Friday or Saturday (as it does this year), Christmas is not a holiday here. I am away from any family, so I don’t have the comfort of knowing that even if the streets aren’t sounding Christmas cheer, I can return home to stars on the verandah, a Christmas tree in the living room, and the aroma of pumpkin pie wafting through the house.

My good friend Naomi and I were talking about this one afternoon, and it struck us that as wonderful and joyful as the Christmas season is in the United States, Advent in Israel probably more closely resembles the Christmas when Jesus was born. Few people at that time knew of Mary and Joseph, and most were more concerned with registering themselves for the Roman census than they were with the young woman expecting a child. Mary and Joseph set off on foot and a mule to register themselves, and sought shelter in the stable of an innkeeper in Bethlehem, the city of David, Joseph’s ancestor.

There were few people celebrating Advent, save for Mary and Joseph, and perhaps a few of their friends. The shepherds arrived after following the bright star, and the Three Wise Men were a few days late. I imagine, however, among the people celebrating Jesus’ birth, that the spirit was joyful.

In the absence of a plethora of reminders that Christmas is approaching, one must be more intentional, more deliberate about celebrating the coming of Jesus’ birth. The little rituals–opening the doors on the advent calendar; lighting the candles on the advent wreath–take on greater meaning. Look for the star in the sky, the herd of sheep hurrying to an inn, the chorus of music from on high.

This year, I will be away from family and in a foreign country, but I have every faith that the Christmas spirit is everywhere, if you only look for it. Merry Christmas.

Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan is a Fulbright fellow in biblical studies and a recent graduate of Boston College. She will be blogging about her experience as a young adult Catholic studying in Israel for the My Generation blog. Her posts can be found at "A year in Israel."

Read more blogs about Advent and Christmas traditions at Submit a guest blog to We may put this together into a holiday theme Meditation Room for the magazine next year. Any reflections selected for publication will win $50!

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.