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WINTER 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 2

Christmas has become a prism through which we Jews can see ourselves.

By Joshua Eli Plaut

hile for the majority of Americans Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, for Jews it is a time to consider their relationship to the wider society. Some Jews have chosen to adopt the Yuletide festivities. Some have emphatically rejected the rituals and symbols of Christmas. Still others have sought ways to meld Christmas and Chanukah. Christmas, in effect, has become a prism through which, over time, we can view how living in this land of opportunity and freedom has shaped our religion, culture, and identity.

In Europe

For centuries, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe feared Christmas-time. At any other time, pious Jews would be studying Torah in the synagogue, but not on Christmas Eve and Day. Wary of being attacked in the street, they took refuge in their homes, playing cards or chess with their families.

The story was different in Western Europe, where, for the Jewish elite, holiday symbols--such as the Christmas tree--signified secular inclusion in society. Affluent German Jews often posed for portraits with their extended families in front of elaborately decorated Christmas trees. The Viennese socialite Fanny Arnstein, a co-founder of the Music Society of Austria, was among the first Jews to introduce a Christmas tree into the home, an act also practiced by none other than the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. In Berlin, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism and philosophy, Gershom Scholem, grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas "with roast goose or hare, a decorated Christmas tree which my mother bought at the market by St. Peter's Church, and the big distribution of presents for servants, relatives, and friends.... An aunt who played the piano treated our cook and servant girl to 'Silent Night, Holy Night.'" These celebrations, Scholem believed, reflected the view that Christmas was "a German national festival, in the celebration of which we joined not as Jews but as Germans." As a young adult, Scholem would reject his family's celebration and, instead, attend a Maccabee Jewish ball for single Jews in Berlin--a matchmaking idea that has as its modern counterpart the "Matzo Ball," a party for Jewish singles slated for this Christmas Eve in twenty-five cities throughout North America.

Coming to America

For most Eastern European Jews, it would take coming to America to ease their fear of Christmastime. At the turn of the 20th century, these new immigrants enjoyed the season for what it was--the national holiday for all Americans and a day of rest for the weary worker. But the holiday was evolving, triggering a change in how the vast majority of Jews dealt with the Yuletide season.

As early as the 1870s, Christmas began to change from essentially a religious to a secular national holiday--a process accelerated by commercialization and the custom of gift-giving, which over time spread from the home to the school and the workplace. In 1912, New York displayed the country's first community Christmas tree, and that same year, the cities of Boston and Hartford celebrated Christmas with open-air holiday-oriented concerts. By the following year, 160 towns across America had sponsored similar musical events that echoed the patterns of private celebrations at home and church--gifts for the children, decorated Christmas trees, nativity scenes, and the spirited singing of Christmas carols. Aglow with Christmas decorations, these city centers infused a celebratory ambience that dominated the landscape; for Jews, there was no escape.

In response, some Jewish families in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Hot Springs, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Toledo staged their own celebrations on the night of December 24. Incorporating both Christmas and Chanukah symbols, regardless if Chanukah fell earlier or later on the calendar, they decorated Christmas trees, exchanged gifts, and hung wreaths on the doors of their homes and stockings on the fireplace. In addition, from the 1880s to the beginning of World War II, American Jews of German descent hosted balls--featuring dinner, dancing, and a concert--for their Jewish friends on Christmas Eve. Opulent celebrations were staged: the grand masquerade ball in 1876 at Bellevue House, Cincinnati; the Christmas Eve party (on the Jewish Sabbath) in 1881 at the Progress Club of New York; the opening ball on Christmas Day in 1883 at the Apollo Club of Minneapolis; the Christmas Hop at Marine's Hall on Christmas Day in 1885 at the West Chicago Club; and the Christmas Soiree of 1888 at the Concordia Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In short, America's new Christmas consciousness could not be ignored. According to a dissertation by Rabbi Kenneth White, Jews responded in three main ways--by accommodation, acceptance, and rejection--depending on the strength of their own religious or cultural identities, their perception of the meaningfulness or offensiveness of Christmas, and their personal desire to be fully part of American society. A fourth response would emerge in the latter half of the 20th century--affirming Jewish identity.

Accommodation And Acceptance

Those Jews participating in the tenor of Christmas without partaking in its religious elements would engage in selective borrowing of Yuletide accoutrements, lending a festive spirit to Chanukah by appropriating decorations such as garlands, wreaths, and evergreen boughs. Consider Sinai Congregation of Chicago's celebration of Chanukah, as reported in the December 27, 1878 issue of Chicago's Jewish Advance:

The fine Temple was crowded with grown people and children. The Chanukah Tree was brilliantly illuminated with wax candles. The services commenced with the singing of the first stanza of the Chanukah hymn by the Sabbath-school children.

Another example: in 1879, the weekly national American Israelite, a newspaper published in Cincinnati, reported that New York's Temple Emanu-El had hosted a Chanukah celebration for its religious school students:

The Lecture room was decorated with a profusion of evergreens. Dr. Gottheil explained the festival, after which the children sang the Chanukah song. Recitations by Mrs. Louis, Miss Judith Ditternhoefer, Messrs. May and Sanger closed the pleasant celebration. Some of the children having remarked that "it looked just like Christmas," Mr. Sanger addressed a few words to them pertinent to the occasion and told the children that Christmas was not an event that should interest them.

So, too, the Sabbath Visitor, a popular Jewish children's magazine of the time, encouraged the decorative use of evergreens during the Festival of Lights. A story in the 1880 edition entitled "On Last Christmas" describes a Jewish family's celebration of Chanukah; home decorations included pictures of Moses and George Washington, a menorah covered with flowers, and the liberal use of wreaths and evergreens.

Perhaps the most widely appropriated Christmas custom among Jews was gift giving. The 1931 how-to classic What Every Jewish Woman Should Know, for example, included the following advice:

It is a time hallowed Jewish custom to distribute gifts in honor of the Hanukkah festival. If ever lavishness in gifts is appropriate, it is on Hanukkah. Jewish children should be showered with gifts, Hanukkah gifts, as a perhaps primitive but most effective means of making them immune against envy of the Christian children and their Christmas.

And in the late 1950s, says Jewish ethnographer and historian Jenna Joselit, "[c]onsumers were also encouraged to use a wide range of food products 'lekavod Chanukah' ('in honor of Chanukah'), from Canada Dry ginger ale and Goodman's noodles to Aunt Jemima pancake flour, 'the best flour for latkes,' and Crisco shortening, which successfully allied 'Chanukah Latkes and Modern Science.'"

Once a Jewish family adopted Christmas practices (even if devoid of Christological meaning) and passed them on from generation to generation, they were not easily abandoned. In San Francisco's high society, for example, the Haas family, originally from Germany, hosted a large annual family Christmas party for more than sixty years. Family member Frances Bransten Rothmann remembers those Christmas celebrations fondly:

I can still smell the fragrant aroma of fir and pine boughs in the crackling fire. I can still sense the excitement and anticipation as we viewed the elaborately-wrapped gifts glowing in their incandescent papers, bows, and promises of wishes fulfilled.

Christmas-time Jewish Traditions

Even Jews who did not appropriate Christmas customs, such as displaying a tree or exchanging gifts, could not ignore America's most celebrated holiday. As an antidote to feeling excluded some Jews invented their own Christmas-time traditions. Jewish immigrants living on New York's Lower East Side, for example, chose in large numbers to spend the evening in one of the city's forty Nickelodeons; thus was born the custom of Jews going to the movies on Christmas. In fact, so many Jews turned to movies on Christmas that in 1908, facing pressure from Christian leaders, New York Mayor McClellan closed the city's cinemas for the holiday. After one year, however, the law was repealed, and movie-going on Christmas continues to our own day.


Yet, as early as the late 1800s, rabbis and other influential Jews criticized the practice of decorating and displaying trees in Jewish living rooms as a shameful blurring of Christian and Jewish customs. Henrietta Szold, for example, then Baltimore correspondent to the Jewish Messenger, wrote on January 10, 1879:

Why need we adopt the Christmas tree, ridiculously baptized a Chanukah bush? Have we not the Menorah, connected so closely with the visions of the prophets and the allegories of the Bible?

"The December Dilemma"

This debate over acceptance, accommodation, and rejection was given a new name in the 1950s--"The December Dilemma." As Rabbi Bertram Korn of Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia explained in a December 15, 1950 sermon:

Every year at this time every thoughtful and serious Jew faces a problem which is intensified at this season: how we as Jews deal with the popular aspects of the majority faith of our we adjust to the temptations of the tinsel and the holly...where we take our stand as Jews....

Indeed, every December, parents across the US struck private bargains with America's Christmas culture. Some resigned themselves to take their children to Macy's department store to sit on Santa's lap. Others advised sons and daughters that it was permissible to sing Christmas carols in schools, providing that one did not vocalize "Jesus" or "Christ." Some American Jews organized against Christmas displays and Bible readings in public schools. But most Jews, reluctant to set themselves apart and afraid to jeopardize the goodwill of their neighbors, acquiesced to religious observances in the public square--that is, until Engel v. Vitale, the landmark 1962 Supreme Court decision declaring school prayer unconstitutional, empowered an increasing number to protest. In the process, these activists claimed a distinctive place for Jews in American political culture--as staunch upholders of the separation of church and state.

What were the consequences for Jews who embraced Christmas traditions? Starting in the 1950s, sociologists conducted a number of studies. In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago's South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to "hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism." Matz's study also demonstrated that members of the third generation were increasingly likely to recognize the inherent contradiction in adopting the religious symbols of another group; they would eventually give up the Christmas tree and find other ways of expressing their acculturation into American society. Sure enough, in a 1993 study Stanford religious studies professor Arnold M. Eisen validated Matz's findings, demonstrating that the majority of American Jews no longer had Christmas trees; in 82 percent of entirely Jewish households, a Christmas tree had never been displayed. So too, sociologist Marshal Sklare's research in the 1950s and '60s on second- and third-generation Jews established that Chanukah--formerly a "minor" Jewish holiday--had gained in importance when it became the Jewish alternative for Christmas. "Instead of alienating the Jew from the general culture," wrote Sklare, "Hanukkah helps to situate him as a participant in that culture. Hanukkah, in short, becomes for some the Jewish Christmas." Ironically, by elevating Chanukah as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, American Jews had invented their own holiday tradition through a Christmas mirror.

The Christmas Mitzvah Season

Toward the end of the 20th century, many third-generation American Jews were seeking more authentic Jewish ways to express their "at-homeness" in America during the Yuletide season. One of the main ways centered on the time-honored practice of "doing mitzvot"--charitable deeds that one's Christian neighbors were also expected to do in "the spirit of Christmas." Volunteerism conferred equal status for the volunteers vis-à-vis other Americans, making them feel like insiders on a day they might otherwise experience the sting of alienation from friends, neighbors, and colleagues. In so doing, they could proudly proclaim Jewish identity in the face of seasonal marginality.

One such volunteer was the late Albert Rosen of Milwaukee. He began Christmas volunteering on December 24, 1969 after encountering a man who was upset about not being with his family on Christmas because he had to work. "That night," an Associated Press writer would later write, "Rosen called a local radio station and asked the disc jockey to announce that a Jewish man wanted to work for a Christian on Christmas." For the next twenty-eight years Rosen stood in for strangers, doing their jobs on Christmas. He filled in for a police dispatcher, bellman, switchboard operator, television reporter, chef, convenience store clerk, radio disc jockey, and a gas station attendant--and, as the AP story noted, he would train for each position in advance:

The first Christmas was among the toughest for a man who never drank anything stronger than soda pop. He [Rosen] spent a week apprenticing at Sardino's South mixing martinis so bartender John Volpe, Jr. could have Christmas off for a change. "He wasn't much of a mixologist," recalls Volpe, "but he was very good with people, a genuine guy." The bar was mobbed that night and a couple of people complained about the drinks. But Rosen basked in the attention from TV and newspaper reporters....His stint at the Pfister Hotel went more smoothly. "He looked like he'd been a bellman all his life," says Richard Ross, the bell captain who trained him. "He had a nice personality, bubbly, upbeat. I would have hired him." Occasionally Jews asked him why he would want to ingratiate himself with Christians. "I do this because I'm a Jew," he told them. "Judaism is about being a light unto the world."

Perhaps the most ironic manifestation of the Christmas mitzvot phenomenon is the Jewish volunteer in a Santa suit. For more than twenty years, Harvey Katz, a lawyer from Glastonbury, Connecticut and a member of Congregation Kol Haverim, delighted children with his cheerful "ho-ho-ho" at the only place in town with a Santa--the Glastonbury Bank and Trust Company (where he served as the first Jewish trustee). Jay Frankston of New York City also took up the role of Santa in 1960, at first to amuse his children. Later, upon discovering that the third floor of the city's main post office served as the storage place for letters addressed to Santa Claus, he managed to gain access to the letters and decided to send telegrams to eight of the children saying, "Santa is coming." Dressed as Santa, Frankston then made good on the promise, bringing the delighted children their presents. By 1972, he was providing gifts to 150 children. Publicity about Frankston's good deeds attracted donations--donations that he, in turn, gave to charitable organizations to distribute at Christmas. "Before, Christmas didn't belong to me," Frankston explained. "Now, Christmas belongs to me."

Today, thousands upon thousands of American Jews have become vested in Christmas through the doing of mitzvot--volunteering in soup kitchens and hospitals, visiting the homebound, preparing or delivering Christmas meals, buying Christmas presents for the poor, or substituting for colleagues at work. Increasingly, volunteerism has become an established means of combining the Jewish values of tikkun olam, repairing the world, with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.

Who would have imagined that this once-feared holiday would become an occasion for many American Jews to affirm their identity with confidence and pride, both as Americans and as Jews?

Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D., a historian, photoethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, is author of the forthcoming book, Silent Night? Being Jewish at Christmas Time in America: Proclaiming Identity in the Face of Seasonal Marginality and executive director of the American Friends of Rabin Medical Center. He welcomes unusual Christmas-time Jewish traditions and stories (


*, a webzine for Jews in their 20s and 30s, features three personal articles reflecting on "December Dilemmas." Visit Ah! Wonderful December, A Think Piece About Chanukah: What If?... , and Hanukah FAQs: Some Hanukah Basics .

* Reform Jewish Outreach: The Idea Book and Working With Interfaith Couples: A Jewish Perspective (URJ Press) both highlight excellent examples of congregational programs focusing on the "December Dilemma." To order call 888-489-8242 or visit

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