The Olive Tree

The Gethsemane Garden, Jerusalem - Holy Land Gift Shop
The Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem - Where Jesus prayed on the night of His betrayal and arrest (Mark 14:32-50). According to the record in Luke, Jesus’ despair in Gethsemane was so deep that He sweat drops of blood (Luke 44-22:43).

The Olive Tree’s Biblical and Modern-Day Significance

Holy Land Gift Shop imports all of our works of reverent art from the finest Christian craftsmen in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Each piece is lovingly hand carved by our talented and dedicated artisans, and every item, including our olive wood nativity sets, stables, statues, crosses, rosaries, and Bibles, is carefully designed to capture the spirit of the Holy Land.

The most meaningful component of our art is not only that it directly supports the Christian community of the Holy Land, but that it comes straight from the land of the Bible; the birthplace of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, where He lived, where He ministered, where He paid for our sins, and where He rose from the dead. We trust that you will find our products to be of the highest quality and we pray that each item will be a blessing to all who buy, give, and receive.

The Olive Tree in the Bible

The olive tree (Olea europaea) is a noble evergreen tree, native to the warm climate of the Holy Land and the Mediterranean basin. It is short and squat with numerous uneven leafy branches decorated with oblong, silvery green leaves. In May the olive trees burst into bloom, with tiny white flowers that blossom in groups in front of every single leaf, and in October the fruit is picked and the trees are pruned. Olive trees are slow growing and can survive for thousands of years; in fact, the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed still exist today.

It also plays a prominent role in the Old and New Testaments in the Bible; an ancient symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, faith, and purity, it is an olive branch that the dove returned to Noah, olive wood that built the cross, and the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended to Heaven. Jesus Himself was anointed with olive oil, and is called “the Messiah”, which means “the Anointed One”. In the modern era, churches in the Holy Land use only olive oil to light the altar’s oil lamps as a symbol of blessing and a sign of the peace and conciliation between God and mankind.

Bethlehem Olive Wood

Olive trees are a protected species in the Holy Land. They must be at least 150 years old before their wood can be cultivated, and mature trees must also be pruned every other year to eliminate old branches, give space for new, healthier branches to emerge, and to expose the inner part of the tree to sun’s rays to facilitate growth. At Holy Land Gift Shop, we use only the wood discarded from the tree’s pruning to create our stunning and environmentally friendly art. Many olive trees are in fact said to be several centuries old, and darker wood from these olive trees is believed to be from the time of Christ.

Bethlehem olive wood is dense and heavy with a range of colors varying between light cream to a rich golden brown, with an irregular dark brown grain. The capricious grains in olive wood add depth and warmth, and the variable and complex nature of the wood may be what makes it one of the most beautiful, unique, and attractive natural materials from which a vast range of ecclesiastical artifacts are created.

Carving Phases

Green raw olive wood is pruned in short branches and logs. After sealing its ends with wax, it is then sorted and stored in a cool warehouse for at least six to twelve months to reduce its high water content (up to 65%) before it is kiln dried. In addition to its water content, olive wood contains a considerable quantity of oil and acids that makes it extremely difficult to dry without shrinking or developing fissures. At Holy Land Gift Shop, we pay special attention to this matter, using the latest technology in kiln-drying techniques to guarantee well-dried products with water content as low as 8% to create art that is as beautiful as it is sacred. In order to produce high quality olive wood carvings, several steps must be followed:

  1. First carving phase: the wood is hewn into blocks according to the size of sculptures to be produced and is then kiln dried.
  2. Second phase: after further sizing, the wood is covered with dry sawdust for 3 to 6 months to absorb the wood’s oil.
  3. Third phase: this is the most important phase where fine details are patiently hand carved, sanded and decorated by skillful artisans. As these features are carved from memory, no two pieces are exactly the same.
  4. Fourth phase: finishing touches are a time-consuming and detail-oriented process; long hours are invested in inspecting each piece to perfect the artwork before it is sprayed with transparent sealant that will protect it from weather variations and highlight the material’s natural color.
  5. Fifth phase: prior to packing, every item passes a strict quality control. Special care is given to items designated for export.

A Traditional Craft

It is difficult to determine when exactly the tradition of producing memorable religious items in Bethlehem started, though it is said that over 400 years ago Franciscan and Roman Orthodox monks taught the locals how to hand craft souvenirs for the Christian pilgrims who visited the Holy Land to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Olive wood, as well as mother-of-pearl, terra cotta, beeswax, and tinted glass were some of the raw, locally available materials used to create spiritual artifacts such as the ones you see today. These artforms have been passed down from generation to generation through centuries of craftsmen in the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Of all these trades, the olive wood craft is the profession that has developed most. Over the last few decades, fine art schools and vocational centers have opened, and scholarships have been granted to talented artists in an effort to develop and modernize the trade. While modern technology has made the process more efficient, each piece of Holy Land Gift Shop art is still hand-carved by a skilled artisan with at least 6 years of training. To this day, Bethlehem and the surrounding region are home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, and their handmade Christian artwork provides the daily bread to the majority of the population.