Jews & Christmas

What attitudes toward Christmas tell us about modern Jewish identity.

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Coming to America

As early as the 1870s, Christmas in America began to change from essentially a religious to a secular national holiday--a process accelerated by commercialization and the custom of gift-giving.

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 Hanukkah symbols, regardless if Hanukkah 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.

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

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

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 Hanukkah; 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.

Sociological Significance

What were the consequences for Jews who embraced Christmas traditions? Starting in the 1950s, American Jewish 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.

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Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD is Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, representing Israel's premier hospital in the USA. He is a historian, photo-ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Silent Night: Being Jewish at Christmas Time in America: Proclaiming Identity in the Face of Seasonal Marginality.