Christmas Eve, My Sister’s Birthday, and Nittel Nacht.

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!)

Cynthia and I getting a hug mixed with Chanel Number 5 and cigarette smoke from our mother

Cynthia and I getting a hug mixed with Chanel Number 5 and cigarette smoke from our mother

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.

About dianabletter

Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women (with photographs by Lori Grinker), shortlisted for a National Jewish Book Award. Her novel, A Remarkable Kindness, (HarperCollins) was published in 2015. She is the First Prize Winner of Moment Magazine's 2019 Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, tabletmag, Glamour, The Forward, The North American Review, Times of Israel, and is a reporter for Israel21C, and many other publications. She is author of Big Up Yourself: It's About Time You Like Being You and The Mom Who Took off On Her Motorcycle, a memoir of her 10,000-mile motorcycle trip to Alaska and back to New York. She lives in a small beach village in Western Galilee, Israel, with her husband and family. She is a member of the local hevra kadisha, the burial circle, and a Muslim-Jewish-Christian-Druze women's group in the nearby town of Akko. And, she likes snowboarding and climbing trees.
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6 Responses to Christmas Eve, My Sister’s Birthday, and Nittel Nacht.

  1. I loved this post, Diana. We had a Jewish neighbor who spent Christmas Eve much as your family did, and now I know about Nittel Nacht and appreciate it more. My friend Debbie, their daughter, told me it was their night to celebrate their family, just as we celebrated ours, but without the Nativity Scene, which at the time I thought was a logical answer. Now I know more, thanks to you.
    A very happy birthday to your sister today! My husband’s uncle was also born on Christmas Eve, and he, too felt cheated out of birthday festivities, but his was mostly because Christmas Eve was the big family get-together, and his presents was given to him at the same time as he and everyone received Christmas presents. Plus, his birthday cake was the standard dessert after the big dinner…and sometimes his cake was actually a pumpkin pie or pecan pie with candles. 😉

    • dianabletter says:

      Thank you, Marylin, for sharing about your husband’s uncle…I would take a pumpkin pie or pecan pie with candles, too! Merry, merry and happy and healthy new year!

  2. Rhonda Blender says:

    Diana, what a perfect entry this evening. I didn’t come out of a family that had a Christmas tree but I also remember well having a family outing, driving around Altoona, Pennsylvania to see all the house decorations. Even as I write this I have a sensory recollection of the sound of snow crunching under the chains on the car tires, way before all the fancy tires they have today. Back then people had chains on their tires for traction and bags of sand in the car trunks over the rear axel for added traction… I remember as a child our rating house decorations as beautiful or ostentatious. But I also remember that feeling you spoke of about laying low on Christmas Eve, of that unspoken tension of some pogrom even though we were in the United States and not the Pale of Settlement. There was just this lingering connection of historical feeling… It saddened me to read what you wrote, “We might not be playing cards on Christmas Eve, but we are still keeping watch” in light of what’s happening in Israel right now and specifically the code red you referred to. To be honest, even here in the States, in Chicago, I still retain a certain listening and watchfulness around holidays, based both on my historical childhood memories in small town America and current worldwide realities for the Jews. I’m sorry for what’s going on in Israel, and especially the acute situation currently. In my opinion, there is a certain palpable danger in the air for all of us now although not the same as what you’re all living with. I pray for all of us. I pray while keeping my eyes and ears open.

  3. I also enjoy reading about your family life and celebrations, Diana. I’m learning a lot about Jewish traditions and food thanks to my new neighbor and friend. And we came up with a name that combines Christmas and Hanukkah. Merry Hanukkmas. 🙂

    • dianabletter says:

      Thank you Tracy. Merry Hanukkmas! That is wonderful. I appreciate your writing. Hope you have a fabulous 2016!

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