Life & Culture

To tree or not to tree? That is the question

Celebrate, volunteer or avoid like the plague? Just what do Jews do over the Christmas holiday period?


Doing anything special on December 25? Christmas is a polarising time for UK Jews. Some enter enthusiastically into a secular celebration, sitting down with family and friends to a (kosher) turkey dinner, handing out presents and pulling crackers. Others get into the spirit of the season of goodwill by volunteering at a variety of charities. But, for many, it is a time to avoid — as much for the rampant commercialism as the religious connotations.

It is 17 years since an Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) survey suggested that around one-in-four community members put up seasonal decorations in their homes. Given that some would be embarrassed to admit to outsiders that they celebrate Christmas — and the increasing assimilation of the mainstream Jewish population — it is a fair assumption that the true figure would be higher today.

Among anecdoctal evidence, Kosher Deli manager Moshe Zyman reports a run on turkeys at the Golders Green store. “Two weeks before Christmas, we already had up to 100 orders. We always see quite a big demand and advise customers to book in advance.”

Mill Hill mother-of-two Cathy Beck loves the festive season. Every year, her six-foot Christmas tree is proudly displayed as the backdrop to a big family party. “Our Christmas at home is special for us as we will all be together,” she says. “I certainly have no religious leanings and have always considered Christmas to be the very end of my working year, when we can just chill. It really is the perfect excuse to treat ourselves with presents and a lovely meal.”

Similar sentiments are expressed by David Herman from Prestwich, who earlier this month took his four-year-old son Joshua to meet Santa at the Arndale shopping centre in Manchester.

“The day is infectious,” he says. “For my wife and I, it has nothing to do with Jesus. We just want our son to experience the magic of the holiday. Besides, Christmas is easier to spell than Chanucah.”

Among those who will be volunteering is Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich, who is maintaining his own Christmas tradition by chauffering the Kingston Mayor — this year Penny Shelton. “I’ve been driving the Mayor on Christmas Day for the past 15 years,” he explains. “It began when I was speaking to the Mayor’s driver, who told me that he couldn’t celebrate Christmas at home because he had to work. So I said I’d do it for him and have been doing it ever since.

“Every year, we visit a centre that gives lunch to the elderly. We sometimes go to the local radio station. This year, we’ll also be visiting the emergency services. It is what I’ve practised all my life. When I was a child, all my aunts got involved, doing whatever they could to make others’ lives easier.”

Others volunteer at Jewish charities such as Jewish Care and Nightingale Hammerson, enabling non-Jewish staff at their residential homes to take time off for the holidays. Masorti Judaism senior rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg says he “very much respects people who volunteer over Christmas. I feel it is neighbourly to thank and appreciate our friends and neighbours, just as it’s always lovely for us to receive Rosh Hashanah cards from them.”

Beyond those who go directly to charities, the Jewish Volunteering Network has signed up 200 people for Christmas Day activities. “The concept of being good to other people is universal,” says JVN director Leonie Lewis. “There is the sense that the Jewish community contributes a lot in money and time to itself. But this is a way we can give back to wider society.”

JVN’s diverse projects include cooking and serving at Harrow food bank, helping out at a St John’s Wood hospice and lending a hand at Sifa Fireside in the Midlands — housing the homeless and those with alcohol addiction. And some of the Limmud hordes in Warwick will spend the day assisting at a local soup kitchen.

Finding herself at a loose end over the holiday season last year, Nathalie Alfandary, 24, and a friend worked four shifts at a Crisis homeless shelter in central London. She had relished the opportunity to do something different, pointing out: “The fact that I didn’t have to work meant I was free and, honestly, I thought I’d get bored. I figured I might as well do something useful with my time.

“My day shifts mainly consisted of cleaning, talking to people and serving food and tea. I also did one overnight shift from Christmas Day to Boxing Day, cleaning and manning corridors. The fact that we can give up a day that is just like any other day for us and help to make it really special for others is pretty awesome.”

Warwick University student Savannah Hersov, 20, is frustrated by her friends’ reactions on learning that she does not celebrate Christmas. “They usually assume that I must be missing out. The looks I get imply that I’ve been deprived. I have never felt that way and usually try to end the conversation quickly because it annoys me.

“I don’t want to celebrate Christmas because it’s not my holiday. And I’m not into presents, so wouldn’t be keen on a large consumerist ritual anyway.”

Born on December 25 — and with a mother named Mary — Kingston Liberal minister Rabbi Charley Baginsky can appreciate better than most the issues Jews face over Christmas, particularly in the smaller communities.

“In our shul in Surrey, most of our congregants’ children are the only Jewish kids in school. How do we deal with the reality that Christmas will permeate their lives? It’s a battle for people.

“How do you explain to your children that they are not going to get presents, or they can’t put lights up? We try as a synagogue to help parents articulate [their concerns] within the schools and remind them that not every child will be decorating their house or waiting for Father Christmas. It’s important that their child feels a part of his or her community, but also acknowledges that there is a difference.”

The strictly Orthodox, meanwhile, have their own long-standing Christmas antidote — Nittel Nacht. Established in the 17th century, Nittel Nacht is a day of mourning for the Charedi Jews who view Christmas as a reminder of Jewish persecution. Torah study is banned, as is any other form of Jewish learning. Instead, people pass their time playing chess to distract their minds.

Finally, if irritated by the all-pervading festive songs at shops, bars and restaurants, take solace that around half the best-sellers were penned by Jews, among them Let It Snow and Winter Wonderland.

And the most famous of all, White Christmas, was written by Irving Berlin, the son of a rabbi, no less.

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