Jewish Christmas Traditions


Winter holidays tend to be bigger, brighter, and louder than celebrations during the rest of the year because it's cold and dark, nothing is growing outside, and we need something to cheer us up. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, New Years Eve all tend to feature lights and colors and social gatherings fattening preserved foods -the things we crave in winter. Christians view Christmas as a holy celebration. It's not as sacred as Easter, but it is certainly bigger! Those who don't view themselves as particularly religious are happy to join in the fun with the not-so-sacred trappings of Christmas: Santa Claus, a tree in the house, lights, and especially gifts. Jews, not so much. To many, the secular parts of Christmas are still symbolic of someone else's religion.

Image by Flickr user Andrew Ratto.

Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday, grew into a major winter event as a counterpoint to Christmas. Children who yearned for gifts like Santa Claus brought had a big holiday, too! Mental_floss author David Israel said he was never jealous of his childhood friends who celebrated Christmas because he received gifts for eight nights straight -which is a pretty good deal. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, was jealous of his childhood friends who had Christmas trees -so much that he lobbied hard and a holiday tree became a tradition in his Jewish home. Whether a Christmas tree belongs in a Jewish home is still a subject for debate, with one side arguing that a tree is a sign of assimilation, the other arguing there's no harm done.

Blended families are flexible by definition, and some combine traditions of both faiths to pass along to the children, such as a tree and Santa Claus along with the menorah lighting during Hanukkah. This year, Hanukkah came early and has been over for a couple of weeks. What is there to do on Christmas?

This year, December 25th falls on a Saturday, so going to the synagogue for Sabbath services is in the cards for observant Jews.

Even those who reject all manner of Christmas celebration have developed traditions for Christmas day out of sheer pragmatism. Most people are off work, so you may as well go out to eat. The only restaurants that are open are Chinese, and that's how a totally non-religious Christmas tradition was born. During her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan referred to the tradition.

Yes, you can eat Chinese and keep kosher. Larger cities have Chinese restaurants that specialize in kosher food. Others run kosher specials for Christmas day. One Canadian Jewish restaurant in Brooklyn is serving Chinese food as a Christmas day special!

After a Chinese lunch (or before supper), how about a movie? Pragmatism rules -and the theaters will be less crowded when so many are at home feasting on ham or roast turkey. Brandon Walker wrote a little song about it.

Saturday Night Live laid out the modern traditions that have become almost rituals in this 2005 animated song.

Festivus (A Holiday for the Rest of Us!) is often seen as an alternative to Christmas, but an aluminum pole and a list of complaints will never beat Chinese food and a movie. Or eight nights of gifts.