Jews & Christmas

What attitudes toward Christmas tell us about modern Jewish identity.

Print this page Print this page

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 Marshall Sklare's research in the 1950s and '60s on second- and third-generation Jews established that Hanukkah--formerly a "minor" Jewish holiday--had gained in importance when it became the Jewish alternative for Christmas. "Instead of alienating the Jews from 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 Hanukkah as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, American Jews had invented their own holiday tradition through a Christmas mirror.

The Christmas Mitzvah Season

One of the main ways of publicly proclaiming one's Jewish identity in response to Christmas fever 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."

A January 8, 1886 article in the American Israelite described this phenomenon:

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, also to give each child presents, in the shape of toys, candies, books, etc. Some of our leading citizens form themselves into a club to manage the affair…Many of our Hebrew families, recognizing that the movement was to make children happy, set aside all questions of faith and doctrine and contributed very liberally in money and material. In fact, so bountifully did they subscribe, that public notice had to be given that no more gifts could be received from any quarter.

For decades, volunteerism has been a way for Jews to embrace the Christmas spirit, while enabling Christians to celebrate their holiday. In so doing, Jews respond in a new way to Christmas consciousness--proudly proclaiming Jewish identity in the face of seasonal marginality.

The Jewish Santa

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."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.