Although Christmas is a holiday with no connection to Jewish practice or rituals – except for the inherent connection with the Jewish identity of Jesus – Jewish tradition tells us that we should not treat the holiday just like any other day.  There was a practice that began in the Middle Ages of making Christmas a day of “frivolity,” of specifically refraining from Torah study and religious activity, and instead doing whatever we can to relax on the day. Some traditions involved, including playing games, particularly card games (even ones involving gambling), eating and shmoozing, and according to the Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, even sewing and fixing things around the house. In North America, the popular tradition evolved in all denominations of the Jewish community to eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve and Christmas day since they were often the only restaurants open during this time. (My personal tradition growing up was to start the morning with my family having a cup of coffee at a local hotel, and then make our way to the Jewish owned bookstore – which was always open on Christmas – and which became an informal meeting place for all of the Jewish book lovers in town to gather.  And then yes, we would finish the day with a Chinese dinner.) Recently, multiple books and even documentary films have come out describing this odd tradition of Chinese food and Jews, and hopefully this important and tasty ritual will can soon make its way to Poland.

Admittedly, these Christmas traditions evolved from a place of fear and misunderstandings about Christian traditions, not from a respectful connection between the communities or from a deep desire to play poker. There was a belief that Torah study and religious activity was a way of bringing holiness and honor into the world, and many Jews felt uncomfortable about doing this on a day that was devoted to a Christian holiday. Others simply didn't want non-Jews to be confused and think that Jewish people celebrated Christmas with joy like the Christians.  Regardless, all over the Jewish world, traditions evolved that allowed Jews to have their own traditions of Christmas. As the Jewish community no longer had fear from the Christians, and as Jews lived in a world of coexistence of respect of other religions, the traditions continued for more practical reasons: most stores, restaurants and places of entertainment were closed, nearly everyone was on vacation, and there simply was not much to do!

In our community here in Warsaw, we gather on Christmas eve for an informal program of food, card playing and movies. I was surprised by the publicity we received for the event this year – multiple radio interviews, a good size article in an online event website, and quite a bit of word of mouth publicity. The interest in the program was most likely for practical reasons, that some people wanted to have an “Alternative Christmas”, but I feel there was also a curiously about what the Jews, this small minority group, once an important and large part of Polish society did on day devoted to Christians. As Jews have always done, we took (what is for us) a normal day and turned it into a day a relaxation, friendship and celebrating life with joy.  It may not be our religious day, or a celebration of our faith, but we can always use an excuse to have a celebration of life.  So L’Chaim to life, and may we all have a happy, happy... uh, day before this week’s Shabbat!

Author: rabbi Boris Dolin – Beit Warszawa