The Surprising Traditions of Jewish Christmas Eve

Toilet paper, abstinence, and persecution
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 24, 2015 4:14 PM CST
The Surprising Traditions of Jewish Christmas Eve

For many people—religious and non-religious alike—Christmas Eve means hot cocoa with family, watching Love Actually, or furiously wrapping last-minute gifts. But for centuries of Jews, Christmas Eve was all about abstinence, tearing toilet paper, and the occasional poker game. Slate has a fascinating look at the little-known—even in Jewish circles—holiday of Nittel Nacht. Until recent generations, when Jewish/Christian relations smoothed out, Christmas Eve was seen by rabbis as a "day of mourning." That, combined with very real persecution, gave rise to Nittel Nacht, which started as early as the 16th century but was popularized by a Jewish mystic in the 1700s. Here are some Nittel Nacht traditions and the reasons behind them:

  • No Torah study: Roving bands of Christians were known to attack Jews on Christmas Eve, and safety concerns led to the closure of study halls. Many rabbis also believed studying Torah helped the world spiritually, and they didn't want to do that on Christmas Eve. Some Jews were even known to stay awake all night, lest they dream of the Torah.
  • Abstinence: Rabbis forbid sex on Nittel Nacht because Jewish mystics thought people likely to turn their back on their faith were conceived on Christmas Eve.
  • Tearing toilet paper: Jews aren't supposed to tear anything—including toilet paper—on the Sabbath as it's considered work. As a way of making Nittel Nacht productive, rabbis suggested tearing toilet paper to use during the coming year's Sabbaths.
  • Poker: If you weren't studying the Torah or having sex—and tearing toilet paper sounded tedious—you had to do something to pass the time.
Read the full story here. (Read more Judaism stories.)

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