So the rest of the country may be eating turkey, pulling crackers and singing carols. But what are Jews doing on Christmas Day? While there are plenty who join in the fun — up to a point — others feel more comfortable doing something else. Whether it’s working, learning, volunteering or playing, here are just some Jews who have found plenty of Yuletide distraction.
Claire Naftalin, 30, is a registrar in genito-urinary and HIV medicine at King’s College Hospital in London. Someone has to be responsible for the sick on Christmas Day, and she does not mind being that person. “I have worked nearly every Christmas Day since I qualified in 2003,” she says. I feel that, as I do not celebrate Christmas, it should be me who works on the day. There are definite advantages to working Christmas Day as it is usually not too busy. Most patients from the ward have been discharged in the lead-up to Christmas, so I will only be seeing the very sick patients who are too unwell to go home to spend Christmas with their families. I don’t mind working on the wards over Christmas; there are always carol singers coming round and there is usually a party atmosphere in the hospital. It’s not all totally selfless — if I work Christmas Day, it means I can take a day off at another time and I will not be on the rota over New Year, which definitely has its benefits.”
For the past four years, actress and writer Linda Majors from North London has volunteered at Crisis Christmas, a countrywide scheme which provides people with somewhere to go during the festive season if they would otherwise be alone.
She says: “I started going to Shelter when my children went away, I didn’t have anything else do to on Christmas Day and I wanted to do something benevolent. I don’t have any kind of spiritual connection with Christmas so I don’t feel as if I’m giving up anything. People say, ‘You’re so good!’ but I always say, ‘I’m probably going to have a much better time than you.’ It really is a lot of fun. I have got regulars that I see every year. These are people that are either homeless or terribly lonely. And it’s not just the guests. The volunteers are from every walk of life. People have this very distorted image of what a shelter is. It’s not just a soup kitchen. Crisis does offer food, but also movies, TV and board games. I always play poker.”
Stewart Brookes, 37, is a regular at the five-day residential Jewish conference, which normally falls over Christmas. The talks and discussions provide a welcome diversion from the rest of the Christmas happenings around the country. This year, however, Limmud is happening from December 28 to January 1 (it always takes place from Sunday to Thursday) — which leaves lot of people bereft of distractions while their non-Jewish neighbours enjoy their Christmas lunch. That is why Brookes, who teaches medieval literature at University College London, is running a Midrash study programme at the London School of Jewish Studies on December 25.
He says: “Christmas is fun because it’s a day off work but it’s meaningless to me. Limmud gives people something to do. It’s better than watching TV. One of the things I’ve loved about Limmud is that you’re not even aware it’s Christmas Day. I remember one year someone’s mobile phone rang and the person ringing wished him a Happy Christmas. But we had no idea it was Christmas. That’s why I wanted to do this Jewish learning programme. I’d prefer not to be defined by someone else’s Christmas festival.”
For more information on the Midrash & Memory colloquium, call 020 8203 6427
Lubavitch Rabbi Hershi Vogel of Ealing United follows the kabbalistic tradition of refraining from studying on Christmas Eve. He says: “Christmas is a day which has tremendous force in Christianity. We do acknowledge that it is exists. But that doesn’t mean that we have to degrade it. On the night before Christmas, we tend to play games like chess until midnight, and we do not study in order not to fan the flames. If we want to counteract something, it’s better to allow it to take its course.
“Some Orthodox Jews will actually study more to counteract the force of Christianity. Personally, I play. Normally I study on a daily basis so I’ll do my regular study in the day time and stop at night. The following day we go back to normal. We should be tolerant of Christmas. If I see people on the street on December 25, I wish them a Merry Christmas. The day promotes goodwill and there’s nothing wrong with that. We should be encouraging it all year round.”
For the last 13 years, BBC Radio 5 Live producer Jason Korsner, 36, has worked on Christmas Day. He sees it as a good opportunity to do jobs he does not normally get to do the rest of the year. “I’m going to be presenting and news reading on Radio 5 Live on Christmas Day,” he says. “Sometimes I’m producing, sometimes I’m news reading. I do normally put myself forward as I am not usually a presenter, so it’s a good opportunity. I was always willing to do the shifts other people didn’t want as it helps you to get ahead in your career.
“There are always compensations for working on Christmas Day. It’s much quicker to get to work and back and you can park outside. In previous years they have attempted to make it easier for Christmas workers by making the shifts shorter. People bring in wine and mince pies and most people who are there don’t really mind. There’s a joke that we become Israel Radio on Christmas Day because all the Jewish people in the department are working.
“I would much prefer to be presenting Drive Time on Christmas Day than watching EastEnders. In fact, often the best stories of the year happen then.”