Santa Claus hands his bell to five year old Ryuya Ando, who energetically shakes it. Ando’s parents, United Nations employees from Japan, get in line for a Christmas tree.
“People don’t usually celebrate Christmas here in Jerusalem,” Hideyuki Ando tells The Media Line. “I’m a little homesick because Christmas and New Years is very important to us.”
It is their second Christmas in Jerusalem. Last year, they didn’t have a tree. But this year, they will have an aqualaria tree about three feet tall, given to them by the city of Jerusalem.
“We’re going to put Christmas tree decorations,” the irrepressible Ryuya told The Media Line, wearing a bright blue winter jacket. His mother, Yoko, said she didn’t know about the tree giveaway but was happy that she stumbled into it.
“Last year we went to a choral concert,” she told The Media Line. “This year we’ll probably go to church but it will be so nice to have a small tree.”
The aqualaria was specially chosen because it can be replanted and can grow very tall. Jamal Amin, a Muslim who is in charge of the project on behalf of the Jewish mayor Nir Barkat, says the city has a special deal with a nursery just outside the city to provide the trees. Each one costs $25, he says, not counting the workers to bring the trees and distribute them. The city gives out a total of 100 trees and there is often more demand that supply.
Amin says the project is meant for Christian residents of Jerusalem only.
“I look in their identity cards to check that Christian,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t want people taking the trees and reselling them.”
Many of those standing on line at the Jaffa Gate were Russian speakers.
“I’m not Christian but in Russia we celebrated Christmas and I continue to do so here,” Sabina Chebonatzski told The Media Line who said she’s been in Israel for 20 years. “Every year I take a tree. I’m really doing it for my daughter who is four years old.”
The focus of Christmas celebrations is not Jerusalem, but nearby Bethlehem. Nazareth in the Galilee also has its share of Christmas cheer. Only about 15,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, out of more than 760,000 residents.
Municipal worker Jamal Amin says the city wants to help its Christian residents enjoy the holiday.
“Just as we decorate for Muslim and Jewish holidays, we give away the trees for Christmas,” he told The Media Line. “We hope people will keep the trees and replant them.”
Hideyuki Ando from Japan seemed thrilled to get his tree.
“Giving them away like this is a message of peace,” he said.