What's a Jew to Do at Christmas?
Judy writes: Many of us have seen this picture posted on facebook and we smile in agreement because this is what we often do during Christmas. Gather together, order in Chinese food and take in a few movies. Some of us have driven around the empty streets on what I like to call “Erev Christmas” taking in the colourful lights and smile when it snows, because it’s nice that our Christian friends get their white Christmas. We turn off the radio after a while knowing that the stations will only be offering up Christmas carols for the next 24 hours, but we will debate which song is our favourite. So, there’s that.
Just two year ago, my family was invited to a “Nittel Nacht” gathering– a Christmas event that began in the 17th century just for Jews. I had never heard of such a thing, so I went straight to the computer and googled.
Here’s some of what I learned:
Nittel (which may mean either hanged/crucified or birth) Nacht (night) is a custom whose origins are, unfortunately, lost. Many believe that the custom of not studying Torah on December 24th arose as a pragmatic act of protection. On a night of religious fervor among their Christian neighbors, and during days when one needed no real excuse to start a murderous pogrom, it was safest, perhaps, for Jews to stay inside their darkened homes rather than venture out to study collectively in a hall/synagogue. Other opinions believe it may be a custom that was established to minimize any feeling of holiness on that night. Still others opine that it is an act of mourning, commemorating the suffering of the Jewish people during various periods of the “Christian Age.”
Playing cards, which was frowned upon by some halachic authorities
Playing chess, which was the practice of the Chabad rebbes Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson
Tearing toilet paper for Shabbat use throughout the year (there is a prohibition against certain types of tearing on Shabbat)
Reading Toledot Yeshu, a parody of the Christian gospelsOrganizing the family financesReading secular books
As for us, instead of those customs, we eat lots, talk and laugh while we celebrate living in a time and place that allows us to continue a 17th century Jewish tradition that was born out of fear but has turned into a joyful coming together of friends. That’s what a Jew can do this Christmas.