What Do Jews Do on Christmas?

• Most Jews do not celebrate Christmas
• Most things are closed, so there is little to do on Christmas
• Chinese restaurants a movie theaters are often open
• Family get-togethers and work are other options
No Christmas Trees!

Christmas is not a Jewish holiday. Many Christians think of Christmas as an American holiday, a secular holiday or a cultural holiday, but most Jews today do not think of Christmas that way. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 82% of Jewish households never have a Christmas tree (and the idea of a "Chanukkah bush" is mostly a joke, not anything anybody takes seriously). The same percentage was found in a 2000 survey by the AJC, though I'm sure that survey skewed toward the more Jewishly-involved. Even among those who are intermarried, only half have a Christmas tree in the home and only 75% give Christmas presents (see Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys). A 2007 survey by InterfaithFamily.com found that only 37% of interfaith families that have decided to raise the children Jewish have a tree in the home. It has become a cliché to talk about the "December Dilemma," the problems that Jewish parents face when their children become jealous of the presents and the fanfare of Christmas, or when interfaith couples must decide what to do for the December holidays.

Many Jews (even highly assimilated Jews) are uncomfortable about Christmas. We don't object to Christians celebrating Christmas, but we don't particularly want to celebrate it ourselves, and there is enormous social pressure to celebrate Christmas, whether we want to or not. One Jewish writer said it's like being a man in the lingerie department: you feel like you don't belong there. Another Jewish writer said, "just try telling a Christmas enthusiast that the creche in front of your post office makes you uneasy; suddenly, 'frosty' describes more than just the snowman." Many secular Christians have told me that Christmas is my holiday too, and some of them get very angry or even nasty when I tell them that I don't want to celebrate it, calling me "Grinch" or "Scrooge."

So if Jews don't celebrate Christmas, then what do we do on December 25? Well, this year (2010), there's an easy answer: go to synagogue! December 25 is a Saturday this year, the Jewish sabbath, and we shouldn't be doing anything on Shabbat anyway! But that's not an answer for everybody, because a lot of Jews don't observe Shabbat strictly.

It's tough to find something to do on Christmas, because just about everything is closed. Here are a few of the more popular December 25 activities for Jews.

Go out for Chinese food
Many Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas. In fact, Justice Elena Kagan mentioned this in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings: when a senator asked her where she was on Christmas, she said, "You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant." Someone even wrote a song about Jews eating Chinese Food On Christmas. The Chinese do not celebrate Christmas any more than we do, so most Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas. In Philadelphia and New York, there are several kosher-certified Chinese restaurants to choose from, so that even the most observant Jew can eat Chinese on Christmas.
Go to the Matzah Ball
In some cities, Jewish singles organizations sponsor "Matzah Balls," Jewish singles dances, on Christmas Eve or Christmas night.
Go to a movie
Many movie theaters are open on Christmas day, particularly in the afternoon (after 4PM). In fact, in 1998, a friend and I went to see The Prince of Egypt in a local theater on the afternoon of Christmas day (though I still haven't figured out why a Passover-themed movie was released at Chanukkah-time).
Get together with family
It's often tough to get the whole family together for dinner, especially when the children are grown up or not living in the immediate area. Christmas is a time when everybody is sure to have the day off. Some families do this do it with a vague sense of guilt at celebrating Christmas, and often repeatedly remind each other that "we're not celebrating Christmas, it's just a convenient time to have a family get-together."
Go to work
Jewish people often volunteer to work on Christmas, especially if they work in 24/7 community service jobs like hospitals, newspapers, or police departments. This allows their Christian co-workers to get the day off, and gives the Jewish worker an extra day off at some other time of the year, when everything isn't closed. Even if your business isn't 24/7, you can often talk your boss into letting you work Christmas in order to get another day off some other time.

Some of my readers have told me about the following Christmas activities by Jews in their communities:

  • A community in Mexico City organized a group of Jews to cover for Christians who would otherwise have to work on Christmas. This was called "Project Brotherhood."
  • Jews in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas go to Atlantic City, where the casinos never close, and the hotels are very inexpensive. The casinos are practically empty on Christmas, except for Jews, Indians and Asians.

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