Jews have devised all sorts of mechanisms for dealing with the holiday on December 25 that shuts down most of the Western world. In centuries past, Jewish communities have hid from Christian pogroms or read from a secret scroll containing derogatory versions of Jesus’s life. Today, it’s mostly movies and Chinese food.
But historically, Jews have had many different ways of keeping themselves busy on the night of December 24–everything ranging from abstaining from Torah study to Matzo Balls…to setting up Christmas trees of their own.
Amazingly, Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem–credited with founding the academic study of Kabbalah –grew up with a Christmas tree in his house, listening to his aunt sing “Silent Night” and eating roast goose or hare with his family. And none other than Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, erected a Christmas tree in his own living room. He writes about entertaining the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, who was disturbed at what he found in Herzl’s home:
I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when [head Vienna rabbi Moritz] Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the “Christian” custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured!
Today, many Jews wrestle with the notion of balancing Hanukkah and Christmas. Others claim that there’s no need to wrestle at all–take, for instance, Barbra Streisand, whose two Christmas albums wholeheartedly embrace the holiday spirit. “Silent Night?” Not if she has anything to say about it…