When I was growing up, my family hung out at home and played cards on Christmas Eve. Like eating Chinese food on Sunday nights, I thought this was just another quirky thing that my suburban Jewish family did. Little did I know that my parents were following a distinctly Jewish tradition for Christmas Eve that began as early as the Sixteenth Century.
Known as Nittel Nacht, the holiday derived its name from Natal Domini, the birth of the Lord. According to scholars such as Michael Wex, since Jews in Europe and Russia were deathly afraid of pogroms and attacks on Christmas Eve, they closed their synagogues, darkened their study houses, and stayed home. They held a vigil—not for the Messiah but for marauders—and passed the time by playing cards. Until I learned about Nittel Nacht, I felt like a Marrano, a secret Jew, who followed inexplicable customs like lighting Sabbath candles in the closet.
My sister Cynthia’s birthday is December 24. (Happy birthday, Shmoogie!)
It was always tough for her because when we were young, nobody was around to celebrate with her, and her birthday was way overshadowed by Christmas. Every year, we watched with envy as other children sat on Santa Claus’s lap and handed him their gift list.
Except for movie theaters, everything else in the vicinity of our house was closed on Christmas Eve so Cynthia and I continued to hang out with our parents long after it was all that appealing. Once we were old enough, we went to comedy clubs in New York City, discovering that they’re the perfect refuge for patrons (as well as the stand-up comics) who are either Jews or who want to stay away from home sweet home.
According to a 2012 Pew Research survey, thirty-two percent of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home. A couple of times, I am sure that Cynthia and I begged for a Christmas tree, but our parents quashed that idea: to them, it was akin to being Jewish Uncle Tom’s. But they did teach us a game they’d invented called Points, in which the four of us drove around town, looking at decorated houses and giving the most points to the most elaborate Christmas displays.
We shouted when we spotted baroque manger scenes, life-sized Santa Claus figures (this was long before inflatables) and houses with more than just a wreath or two. Cynthia and I favored extravagant multi-colored light displays with angels and enormous candy canes but my mother argued that they were ongepotchket, or too much of everything slapped together, and preferred giving more points to elegant, understated homes.
In the early 2000’s, when Jonny and I spent a few years living on the East End of Long Island, we passed on Points to the next generation. Then I discovered that our sons had joined some other friends and placed some reindeer on their hind legs behind other reindeer in the display on the village green. Sorry to those who are offended. The boys weren’t being sacrilegious, just pulling off a bawdy adolescent prank.
But now that I am back in northern Israel, I confess (mea culpa) that I really miss Christmas. I miss the holiday muzak, store cashiers with their red-and-white stocking hats, and the gift-giving. Most Israelis don’t even exchange gifts on Chanukah—they do their gift-giving on Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish New Year. This past Sunday, feeling nostalgic, I drove around the nearby town of Akko, trying to play a game of Points. There was one store selling Christmas decorations but there wasn’t much going on.
Later, I went to work teaching English in my after-school program. In the middle of the lesson, bomb sirens went off and we ran in the direction of the synagogue where the rabbi happened to be just leaving. There is a high wall and we stood there. Three rockets were fired from Lebanon, believed to be in retaliation for the targeted killing of Hezbollah terrorist Samir Kuntar. (He was the terrorist who infiltrated Nahariya by sea in April 1979 and killed Danny Haran, and his four-year-old daughter Einat. Their other daughter, Yael, two years old, was accidentally smothered to death as she and her mother, Smadar, hid from the terrorists.)
The rabbi recited a psalm. We waited, listening. After ten minutes, when everything grew quiet again, we all went home. We might not be playing cards on Christmas Eve—but we’re still keeping watch.
What’s the best gift we can give ourselves on Christmas? Remembering that tomorrow is uncertain and yesterday is gone forever. All we have is right now. That’s why it’s called the present.