With our girls doing homeschool this year, our schedules are way different than we are used to. They are enrolled in an online program with teachers, tests, and daily due dates. They need to stay on track, but the hours in which they do it are more flexible. However, one of the big downsides is that the schedule itself is relentless. It is tough when you fall behind because you have no choice but to make up your missed work to move forward in the course. They were only given two days off for Christmas and two more for New Years. Which made a quick day trip to Caesarea right before Christmas the perfect idea. We met up with some church friends in the gorgeous city that lies halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa (about a 45 minute drive for us). Caesarea began as a Roman city around 20 BC and, since then, has had as many conquests as the different countries, religions and cultures that have inhabited Israel in the last 2500 years…which is a lot. Needless to say, the ruins left today are steeped in history and stories, most of it Roman.
The above entrance is right as you come into the National Park and its beautiful! Considering that these ruins are as old as they are and weren’t excavated until the 1950’s and 60’s, they are looking pretty amazing. The ruins also include a hippodrome, theater, old homes and palaces and aqueduct as well as a beach, upmarket harbor shops and dining.
After seeing a really well-done video about the history of this place (the only kind of history lesson my kids will happily sit through!), we ventured out to explore the grounds. We wandered all around the ruins of Caesarea’s homes and palaces, imagining what life must’ve been like all of those years ago. Its incredible to think of how advanced the Romans were!
The hippodrome was right off of the beach. The homes closest to both were the nicest and most expensive real estate back when these walls were inhabited. That certainly hasn’t changed in the last 2000-plus years! We held impromptu foot races (perhaps slightly similar to races done back then?!? haha!) from one end to the other but were completely winded at the halfway point- those hippodromes are much bigger than they appear.
After hearing our voices lift and echo in the huge theater and then grabbing a delicious lunch in a restaurant right off the water, our last stop was the ancient aqueduct a short drive up the road.
Our Christmas festivities began in earnest shortly after our visit to Caesarea. We made and decorated our favorite Christmas sugar cookies. I brought back Christmas sprinkles and large bags of powdered sugar from my trip to the States in early December. You can’t buy either here and they are absolutely essential to delicious Christmas cookies.
We made many trips to Carmel Market- one place I definitely wish we could take back with us when we are done here. The kids don’t love coming with me to the market because the smells can be tough, but I don’t have a particularly sensitive nose so it doesn’t bother me much. However, when we were gathering candy to make our gingerbread houses with, they all were absolutely thrilled to come! We made a big stop at the famous gummy vendors there and brought home a huge haul of all sorts of gummies, candy, wafers, and cookies. We should’ve taken a picture of just that! Our gingerbread houses turned out so cute this year. Dad and Tessa paired up on a shuk with a fruit seller, candy, and clothing shop inside. Lauren did Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and Taylor did a candy shop and house. Kate did a cute little village that didn’t hold up very long because we didn’t have gingerbread, and biscuits just aren’t as sturdy!
Under the ruse of Christmas shopping, Tessa and Dad took off for several hours on a scooter ride one afternoon. They took that bad boy (above and behind Tessa) out for a ride all the way to the airport north of Tel Aviv! It puttered and died about a mile from home, but they had the best time just hanging out together. This is the boardwalk that lines the beaches here and its so nice and well-maintained. It feels like almost everyone here either owns an electric bike or scooter, so you need lots of space everywhere to ride around and this is the perfect place. Those scooters are the best way to get from Point A to Point B and so fun to ride!
These flowers above are the closest thing you may see to Christmas decorations around Tel Aviv. Its not celebrated at all here and is like any other day of the week! We have an apartment building under construction right next to us and they were working just like every other day. It’s definitely strange, to say the least.
Our branch president and his wife are the best! They have lived in Israel for almost 3 years and know all of the ins and outs and give so much to our branch and the people in it. They have a yearly Christmas tradition that they’ve been doing for the last 17 years (and they’ve lived all over the world, literally) of inviting a big group of friends from church to their home on Christmas Eve for dinner, the recitation of the Christmas story and a white elephant exchange. Its so great to have a place to go on this night when you’re not living close to family. You immediately feel bonded to people in a place and situation like this.
Tessa and her self-proclaimed best friend (the cutest little girl below) both randomly opened the cutest little gifts with crayons and coloring books- perfect for them. They were so cute and excited about what they got. The rest of the gifts were a mix of really funny and really awesome things that we laughed and “fought” over. The winner went home with some real German pork sausages and cheddar cheese- two items that are hard to find and/or very expensive in stores here. Then, the kids and even the adults dressed up and re-enacted the Christmas story. We read scriptures, sang songs and worshipped in our own way, remembering why we really celebrate this special season.
That night, we stayed up way too late with happy anticipation for the next morning. We got our tree this year at Carmel Market and while its not a traditional pine tree (also impossible to find here because, trust me, we tried!), it was perfect for us and we loved it. Its branches weren’t sturdy enough to hold more than one decoration so it was pretty bare, but it made for a memory of our Christmas in Israel that we won’t soon forget.
Take a peek at that lovely wrapping paper, which I also picked up at Target in North Carolina. I got the biggest roll I could find and when I went to put it in my suitcase, it was waaaay too long. Determined to make it work (and knowing I wouldn’t find another option in Israel), I cut it in half with my hotel knife and stuffed it in my bag! Our neighbors in our building here are from Manchester, UK and aren’t around much, but they were here for Christmas. So, we brought them some of our delicious cookies and they gave the girls these Santa hats and some yummy British candies.
Christmas morning magic follows wherever you live! These girls weren’t totally convinced that Santa would find us here in Israel, especially since we don’t have a chimney, but he pulled through in the end. We informed them that Santa was told to give us a simple Christmas this year because we ultimately have to bring everything back with us in the same bags we brought here (two checked bags each). So, he got really creative and surprised everyone with a Disney cruise!!! We go at the end of April and could not be more excited about it.
The girls also got some cute new swimmers to wear on the cruise as well as a couple of Polaroid cameras to capture their favorite moments from now until then ;) And anytime its warm enough to wear swimsuits outside on Christmas day is a gift in and of itself!
Love this sweet girl so much! Her personality keeps us all on our toes.
Brian got a full two weeks off of work, which was another gift! Wow, it was so nice to have him around. We also relented and leased a car for our last few months here. Which has already proven to be totally worth it! We love being able to go somewhere at the last minute (although we don’t drive if its within a 30 minute walk because parking here is a nightmare). Most of us got hit with a very severe cold over the break, so we spent a lot of time resting and relaxing. When we weren’t doing that, we were exploring Tel Aviv more and more, which usually lands us back at Carmel (see above and below for evidence). Yom Tov is one of our favorites and we love taking visitors to eat here. Its so nice to sit outside, eat delicious food, bask in the glorious weather, listen to the bustling market and literally pick up and move your chair out of the way when a car happens to drive by. Its life here! Wild.
I was able to give a talk in our little branch at Christmastime and because it tells so much of our life and experience with Christmas here, I wanted to include parts of it as well as my testimony so that I can always have it. I’ll paste it below.
This was our first Christmas as a family living here in the Holy Land. I don’t think anyone of us anticipated what a different feeling there would be in the air during this season as we sought to celebrate the birth of Christ. The traditional decorations of Christmas trees, tinsel, mistletoe, talk of Christ and even Santa, and that united feeling of serving others is much harder to find. However, because of that absence, it caused me to think more deeply than I ever have about the reality of Christ and his birth, not too far from where we all are right now. I have never felt a more profound conviction that Christ was born to be our Savior and to live a life here on Earth that would teach us how to better live our own. I have loved that feeling and the chance to focus on eternal truths more than I ever have before at this time of year.
Christmas can mean something different to each one of us in this room, but the simple reality is that it is about Christ’s birth and no life has had a more significant impact on mankind than His. I was able to attend the Jerusalem Center Christmas concert a couple of weeks ago with several other members of our ward. I was struck by the fact that a good portion of the audience members appeared to be Jewish. The most powerful part of the evening for me was when the choir sang “Silent Night” in 12 different languages. A song about the miracle of Christ’s birth in that place in the presence of so many people who may not recognize Him as their Savior and in so many different languages stopped me entirely and filled me with so much love for a perfect man that does not separate us according to borders, languages, religions, or cultures. He only feels pure love for each one of us, no matter what. That is the greatest miracle of all and surely a reason to celebrate.
I have asked myself lately what this means for me? How can I take this feeling and apply it to my own life? I can remember Him. I can reach out in service and love to those around me regardless of reasons why we may be different. I can show gratitude for the things I have that are some of the biggest blessings or gifts that I have been given from Him.
I know as I seek to honor Him during this time of year, I will feel the Christmas spirit more and more. One of my favorite memories of Christmas as a small child happened when my Dad went out and bought 10 cooked turkeys. There were 11 kids in my family, but we all piled in our big car together and drove around after dark and delivered these turkeys to families in our ward that were in need. We put the turkey on the doorstep, rang the doorbell, jumped in the car and sped away before the person could see who had dropped it off. As a child, I thought it was great fun to hide our identity while we helped others. But, the next week at church, a sweet man came up to my Dad and said that he knew the turkey had come from us and he began to cry. He said that it was an answer to a prayer and that if we had not brought it to him, his family would have nothing to eat that night and they had managed to stretch it to last for a full 5 days of food. It completely changed my feelings, which were already good, to a feeling of knowing that Christ knows who we are and what we are in need of and that He can help us to be angels to each other. We can surely honor Him as we ask, “who is in need and how can I help?” and move forward with courage knowing that He needs each one of us. We all need each other.
Instead of making the traditions and decorations the focus of this season, we can make Christ the focus of this season and really, the focus of our lives. We can open our hearts to the sweet whisperings of the Spirit, telling us that we are loved and loved without measure or end. We can also begin to understand that this same love extends to everyone on this earth. I do believe that this is Christ’s most important message.
I came across a Christmas thought this week that I wanted to share:
It says “God could have sent His son to live with a wealthy man and a perfect woman but He didn’t.
He picked Joseph who was hard working and humble and probably nervous.
He picked Mary who was simple and imperfect and probably overwhelmed.
He picked people with average lives and extraordinary hearts.
This gives me hope that what God values is simple and available to every one of us.
It’s available to me and to you, and it’s available because of Him. (credit: Jody Moore)
I want to share my feelings about the one gift that we can give to Him. It is our free will. When we turn this- even our extraordinary hearts as the thought says- over to Him, it is the only thing that we can give Him that is truly ours to give, that doesn’t already belong to Him. I know that He can make more of our lives than we can do on our own. Its not necessarily done in our schedules, but in the depths of our testimony- in our hearts, and in our minds and in the way we treat those around us. He can change all of these things to a higher perspective and to allow us to see the eternal nature of everything we say, do and think. I have a firm testimony of this truth. As we seek to give gifts during Christmas, I hope to be able to commit more fully to turning my will over to Him, knowing that it will grant me much more joy than any worldly gift could give.
Lastly, I want to share a quote from Elder Uchtdorf “While the Christmas season is typically a time for looking back and celebrating the birth of our Lord, it seems to me that it should also be a time of looking to the future. Let us look forward. Let us prepare for that blessed day when He will come again. Let us be as wise as those ancients who watched for His coming. As His disciples, let us have in our hearts and minds the words of John: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” And may we look steadfastly forward to that blessed day when the resurrected Christ will walk the earth again as our Lord, our King, and our blessed Savior.”
I love that we know, in our church, that He has come, He lived on this Earth, He died for us, and He was resurrected so that we too could be resurrected one day to live with Him. I love that we know that He will come again to this Earth and bring love and joy to so many who may not have had a fulness of it in this life- all burdens will be lightened by a loving God who knows each of us personally. He loves us, He has always loved us and He will always love us. I know this and I am so grateful to celebrate all of this and the life of His Son during this time and to have the opportunity to focus on what He has done for me and the gifts He has given me that have made my life so much better. I cannot wait for the day when I will stand and see Him again. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.