How Should American Jews React to Christmas?
Christmas frequently inspired deadly pogroms against European Jewry, and became known in Yiddish as “moyredike nacht” (fearful night), creating a custom known as “Nittel Nacht” (Yiddish for Christmas Eve) where many attempted to avoid joyful experiences or extra mitzvot on Christmas to ensure that no glory would be given to the day.
A Yiddish expression distills this feeling pithily: “Nitl iz a beyzer layd” (Christmas is a wicked burden).
In Western Europe, many Jews chased after the mirage of freedom and assimilation by observing Christmas rituals, obscuring their Jewishness, and “blending in.” Even Theodor Herzl had a Christmas spruce.
Given this reality, it’s stunning to see what happened in America. Here, Jews managed to remain distinct by not observing Christmas, yet became an integral component of it — in a fusion so rare in the history of religious coexistence that is uniquely American.
“A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish” is the title of a book by Rabbi Joshua Plaut. The name nails it.
Though many American Jews still took on treif habits, it is interesting to note that even as assimilation rose, Christmas trees disappeared from Jewish homes. A 1993 Stanford study found that 82 percent of all-Jewish households never had a Christmas tree, an increase from decades prior. It’s unclear what the number would be today, as assimilation once again continues to rise.
However, Christmas isn’t like other non-Jewish holidays around the world where Jews simply do nothing. The “Kosher Christmas” means that American Jews molded their own idiosyncratic December 25th tradition that broadcasts Jewish distinctiveness by refusing to adopt any Christian rituals, yet salutes participation in a holiday season whose civic spirit animates the tolerant and affectionate culture that Jews have long enjoyed in the US.
Consider some examples:
An 1886 American Israelite article described acts of community service on Christmas: “It is the custom here [Cincinnati], as in other cities, to provide a hearty meal for all the poor children of the vicinity during the Christmas holidays … our Hebrew families, recognizing that the movement was to make children happy, set aside all questions of faith and doctrine.”
Jewish newspapers ran ads incorporating the holiday season, like one from a dentist noting Santa’s white teeth in 1924 (see below in Yiddish). And some of the most iconic Christmas songs were written by American Jews, including “Let it Snow” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
During her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Elena Kagan said, “you know like all Jews [on Christmas] I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Indeed, “what Jews do on Christmas” has become part of the American Christmas tradition. While medieval laws forced our ancestors inside on the holiday, Jews in America pursue all sorts of public activities that are deliberately non-Christian.
In other words, Jews celebrate Christmas by not celebrating it. “Only in America.”
The driving factor of Jewish holiday cheer is the Jewish-Christian fellowship in America. In 1912, Dr. Max Pam donated to the Catholic University of America and wrote Bishop Gibbons explaining why a Jew would support such an institution: “with the spirit of religion finding permanent place in thought and conduct, both in private and public life, the liberties and happiness of the people are secure.” Dr. Pam correctly identified a crucial ingredient of a country so welcoming to Jews: its faith. As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik explained, “Jews encountered a unique embrace in America because of its love of the Hebrew Bible. A society suddenly hostile to biblical faith will become an entirely different America for adherents of Judaism.”
Penne Restad, author of “Christmas in America,” shows that Christmas is a part of how America came to be. The most famous Christmas in America was in 1776, when George Washington took a fledgling band of freezing men across the Delaware River and saved our country. Moses Levy was among those brave patriots who took on the Hessians in Trenton. Since the beginning, Jews were and are a part of Christmas in America and the country itself.
With pride, patriotism, and principle, Jews should say to our fellow Americans celebrating this weekend: “Merry Christmas!”
Joshua Blustein is a University of Chicago Law School student and a Krauthammer Fellow at the Tikvah Fund