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 and 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). A 2013 Pew survey found that less than a third of Jews have a Christmas tree, and most of those are intermarried. Even among those who are intermarried, only 71% had a Christmas tree, far less than the 90% of Americans who celebrate Christmas. A 2007 survey by InterfaithFamily.com found that only 38% 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 mind other people celebrating Christmas. We aren't offended at a good-natured "Merry Christmas!" (although it may not give us the same warm-fuzzy feeling that you get). We don't mind the festive lights (although please, turn them off before midnight, I'm trying to sleep...). We don't object to the Christmas music playing 24/7 in every public place and many radio stations (although I find other things to listen to). And we're more than happy to share your cookies and candy (as long as it's kosher). Enjoy the holiday to your heart's content; just allow us to refrain if we choose to. 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? In some years, Christmas overlaps with Shabbat, in which case you can always go to synagogue! We shouldn't be doing anything on Shabbat anyway! Christmas overlaps with Shabbat in 2020 (Christmas night is a Friday night) and 2021 (Christmas day will be a Saturday). But even when they do overlap, synagogue isn't an answer for everybody, because a lot of Jews don't observe Shabbat and many don't even belong to a synagogue. So what do we do?

It's tough to find something to do on Christmas, because just about everything is closed. Of course, during the 2020 pandemic, almost everything is closed all the time, so you may be getting used to what Christmas has historically been like for Jews! But here are a few of the more popular Jewish December 25 activities in normal years:

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. In fact, there was a joke sign where the "Chinese Restaurant Association" thanked the Jewish People that our G-d insists that we eat their 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. Of course, during the pandemic, you'll probably want to do take-out... Inconveniently, the sunrise-to-sunset Fast of Tevet falls on Christmas in 2020, so you'll want to get your take-out on Christmas Eve or Christmas night.
Go to the Matzah Ball
In some cities, Jewish singles organizations sponsor "Matzah Balls," Jewish singles dances, on Christmas Eve or Christmas night. During the pandemic, there are virtual Matzah Balls, so you can meet people from all over on Zoom.
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). During the pandemic, of course, movie theaters are closed, but you can stream movies. On Christmas, I have frequently watched Danny Kaye's The Court Jester, sort of a Robin Hood parody, great fun for the whole family, with a young Angela Landbury. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but maybe that's the best thing about it for this purpose, and of course, Danny Kaye was Jewish. It's available for streaming through Amazon Prime and several other sources.
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." Of course, during the pandemic you have to be careful about getting together with anyone outside of your household, but maybe a get-together on Zoom.
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. During the pandemic, this sort of trade-off is especially valuable to the 24/7 emergency workers.

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


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