As some of you may know, if you have any students in your class who identify as Christian, they may ask to be excused from school to observe the Christian holiday of “Christmas,” more popularly referred to as Yom Christmas or Nittel.
The date of Yom Christmas is set according to Pope Gregory’s calendar, so the holiday moves around on the normal calendar. This year, Yom Christmas falls on Rosh Chodesh Tevet. Although it will also be Chanukah, Christians do not observe Hanukkah. Christians light candles only if they have a five-candle Advent Menorah (pictured) with the fifth candle for Yom Christmas. This candle is lit without a bracha.
It is a common misconception to think of Yom Christmas as a “Christian Hanukah,” but the holidays are not related, even though Yom Christmas sometimes falls during Chanuka. Nor is it an observance of Rosh Chodesh.
The holiday lasts only one day, even outside Medinat Vatican.
Students in your classes may express that they feel sorry for the Christian students who have only one day of holiday, and no candles. You may explain to them that Christian students have their own holiday traditions, some even with candles of their own, and that in their way they enjoy their holiday just as much as we enjoy Chanukkah.
Most people assume that Yom Saint Francis Ha’Kadosh is the most important Christian holiday, falling as it does during the holiday season. But Yom Christmas is also widely observed in the Christian world, and it has many fascinating and colorful customs.
Observance of Yom Christmas begins on Erev Christmas. This may seem like an obvious point to make, but since the Christian day typically starts in the middle of the night, the time holidays begin is not always obvious.
Christians typically attend their Christian shuls for a special maariv service at the beginning of the chag. Most Christians do not attend shul on the morning of Yom Christmas, even though it is an important yom tov to them. Many Protestanted Christian shuls do not even host Christian shacharit davening for this day, even if it falls on First Day (as it does this year), which is the Christian Shabbat.
Most students love sharing their culture. Your Christian students would probably love explaining the significance of all of their colorful holiday minhagim to your class. Perhaps you could ask Christian students to explain the major mitzvot of Yom Christmas!
Yom Christmas commemorates the birth of the Christian prophet Yeshu. You may notice depictions of the baby prophet in an animal trough. The story of the prophet’s barnyard birth to an unwed mother is considered religiously significant for Christians and the holiday is widely celebrated by both religious and secular Christians.
Out of politeness for their sincerely held beliefs, please refrain from asking Christian students to explain how the prophet's unwed mother became pregnant.
If you happen to live near a Christian shul, you may notice a sukkah housing some people and animals. This isn’t actually a sukkah but a depiction of Yeshu’s birth scene. The depiction may feature a rendition of the baby prophet, his mother and her fiancé, some farm animals, and several richly-clad Wise Guys bringing gifts.
The birth scene is sometimes depicted in the form of a drama, with actors and real animals. You should refrain from petting the animals, as it is not a petting zoo.
In modern times, Yom Christmas incorporates many religious rituals that were appropriated from Yule, which is the Celtic pagan celebration of the winter solstice. One Pagan-derived custom is to bring greenery, including entire cut trees, inside the home. Frum Christian families may insist on a real tree for halachic reasons, but many secular Christian families use an artificial tree because natural ones are so expensive and hard to find, given the minimal demand.
Your Christian students may love sharing with the class how their family goes about choosing a kosher tree, and the bracha they say upon sacrificing the conifer.
Christaica shops and specialty Christian grocery markets sell decorations for the trees, but thrifty Christian families know it’s easier to buy sukkah lights and ornaments on clearance after Sukkot!
Some students have a minhag of wearing garish sweaters to school in the days leading up to Yom Christmas. Please DO comment on the ugliness of the sweater. They believe the uglier the sweater is, the better.
Most of these holiday sweaters will probably be yellow & white— the colors of Christianity and every single one of their chagim— but others might have pictures of Saint Nikolas Ha’Kadosh ("Santa") surrounded by deer or polar bears because they believe he lives in the Arctic Circle.
Recall that Yom Saint Nikolas Ha'Kadosh was last week, as part of the Christian Holiday Season. https://www.facebook.com/JewWhoHasItAll/posts/188261753782816
Some students might ask to hear JingleBells. This is the anthem of “Christmas.” It is acceptable to play the song once during snack time if requested by a student. Here is a link to the song, in case of a request:
There are several other traditional songs for Yom #Christmas but most are religious and therefore not suitable for use in public school.
You may also remind Christian students that we already celebrated their chag of Yom Saint Francis Ha’Kadosh months ago during the holiday season, and it is unreasonable to be expected to recognize every single minority holiday in public schools.
Since Yom Christmas falls on a weekend this year and lasts only one day, Christian students should not need to miss any school. Students who feel they need to miss class for their observance should bring a letter from their Christian rabbi.
Melacha is not prohibited on Yom Christmas nor on other Christian holidays, so if you notice your Christian friend (if you have one) posting pictures to Facesefer over their yom tov, please do not assume they are mechalel yom tov.
The traditional greeting for Yom Christmas is "Merry Christmas." If you forget, a simple chag sameach is never wrong.
Thank you, as always, for all your hard work!
Superintendent Ramban Public Schools