Yiddish folklore about Christmas exemplifies the complex understanding that East European Jews evolved of their neighbors’ religiosity. Documentation of this lore, while limited, appears in a variety of linguistic and folkloristic sources dating from the early twentieth century. Ignatz Bernstein’s 1908 collection of Yiddish sayings offers a single proverb—Nitl iz a beyzer layd (Christmas is a wicked burden)—and explains that this saying reflects a history of violence against Jews on Christmas Eve from the time of the Middle Ages.
Bernstein explains that the Yiddish term for Christmas, nitl, is derived from the Latin natalis (birth). The word is but one of more than a dozen terms Yiddish speakers used to name this holiday, according to the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ). Nitl was the most frequent and widespread term, used throughout Europe and sometimes regarded as a scholarly term. Most other Yiddish words for Christmas are distinctive to a particular region and usually derived from a local non-Jewish language: vaynakht (cf. German Weihnachten; Christmas Eve) in Alsace, Galicia, and western Poland; rizlekh in Ukraine (cf. Ukrainian rizdvo; Christmas); yolkes in Belorussia, (cf. Belorussian yolka; Christmas tree). While Yiddish speakers considered these Yiddish words, other responses reported in the LCAAJ were described as non-Jewish terms employed by Yiddish-speaking Jews: kaleyd (cf. Lithuanian kaledos); vigilye (cf. Polish wigilia); rozhestvo (cf. Bulgarian rozhdestvo khristovo); and korachon or krichun (cf. Hungarian karácsony).
Other Yiddish terms for Christmas are clearly Jewish inventions: goyimnakht (gentiles’ night); tolenakht and yoyzlsnakht (both meaning, colloquially, Jesus’ night); blinde nakht (blind night); fintstere nakht (dark night); and moyredike nakht (fearful night). While these are largely expressive of fears associated with Christmas, other terms are more subversively playful: beyz geboyrenish (literally, wicked birthing) plays on the Polish boże narodzenie (divine birth); veynakht (literally, woe-night) puns on Weihnachten.
This pattern of both expressing and flouting fear also informs East European Jewish folkways observed on Christmas, as reported in various sources: children stayed home from heder and men refrained from studying holy texts. People stayed indoors, sometimes shuttering their windows. Children played cards, otherwise only permitted during Hanukkah, when games of chance are allowed. Protective covers were placed over holy books or vessels containing liquids and food, to protect them from tome (ritual impurity) associated with Christmas.
Explanations for these practices root them in traditional beliefs about Jesus. He is a problematic figure—on the one hand, an ominous bearer of tome; on the other hand, acknowledged, if begrudgingly, as a scholar deserving of respect. Sources sometimes refer to Jesus as Yoyzl (a slangy diminutive) or Yosl Pondrik, a Yiddish version of the name used for him in Toldos Yeshu (History of Jesus), a medieval Jewish response to the gospels that debunks Jesus’ divinity with an alternative biography. There he is revealed to be a bastard, the son of a Roman soldier Pantura, who raped Jesus’ mother. Jesus’ ability to perform miracles and his resurrection are also discredited. Toldos Yeshu not only denies that Jesus is the messiah, but it also implicitly defends his status in the Christian world by explaining how an illegitimate Jewish heretic could come to be so revered. Similarly, East European Yiddish folklore about Christmas acknowledges the awe Jesus inspires while belittling his stature.
Ignacy Bernstein, Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten, ed. Hans Peter Althaus (Hildesheim, 1969); Marvin Herzog, ed., The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (New York, 1992–); Sid Z. Leiman, "The Scroll of Fasts: The Ninth of Tebeth," Jewish Quarterly Review 74 (1983): 174–195; Jeffrey Shandler, “Wejnacht!: Jiddische Weihnachtstraditionen aus Osteuropa,” in Weihnukka: Geschichten von Weinachten und Chanukka, ed. Cilly Kugelmann, pp. 105–108 (Berlin, 2005); Marc Shapiro, "Torah Study on Christmas Eve," Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 8 (1999): 319–353.