Eastern European Jews & Christmas

A day to play games and avoid Torah study.

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Though ostensibly in opposition to the solemn Christian celebration of that evening, the Jewish custom of card playing on Christmas may also have been rooted in an older German custom of merrymaking during Christmas. Clement A. Miles, in Christmas Customs and Traditions, reports that card playing was a part of Christmas festivities in assorted European countries. Additionally, if study and going out in public were customarily prohibited for Jews, game playing provided them with a diversion from an evening filled with fear and dread.

Christmas may also have served as an occasion for gambling while playing chess or cards because it was not a Jewish holiday or the Sabbath, the times in which the prohibition against these games was enforced, though neither of the two authoritative books on Jews and chess entitled Chess, Jews and History and Chess Among the Jews (both translations of works by Moritz Steinschneider) mentions chess being played on Christmas by Jews. However, the author cites an allegorical fable about two sons of a distinguished man who were taken with the playing of dice or cards. The father considered these to be games that could lead his sons astray. The father then took it upon himself to teach his sons the game of chess--a game "they should only play for half an hour a day, except on Hanukkah, Purim and the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot." From this parable we may infer that on Hanukkah and the other mentioned holidays, chess could be played for a longer period of time. The custom of chess playing on Hanukkah must have influenced some Jews to play chess on Christmas.

The Hasidic followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson claim that a famous photograph documenting the Lubavitcher Rebbe playing chess with his father-in-law was taken on Christmas.

Names of the Day

Because Jews engaged in special rituals and activities on Christmas, they had special names for the day. Nittel Nakht was the most commons name for the holiday. The etymology of the term Nittel is ambiguous. Some have claimed it derives from the Hebrew word for "hanging" and refers to Jesus' crucifixion; others believe that is has Latin roots. Other names for Christmas were tied to particular geographic regions and were often a variation of the common local name for the holiday. Jews in Alsace, Galicia and Western Poland used Vay Nahkht (Woe Night), a name parodying the German Wei Nahkhten (Holy Night). Certain names were descriptive in character. The Jews in Southern and Central Europe called Christmas Eve Goyim Nahkht (Gentiles' Night), Tole Nahkht (Night of the Crucified One), and Yoyzls Nahkht (Jesus Night).

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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.