Meet You At the Movies on Christmas Eve: The Origin of a Jewish Tradition

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Jews in America, particularly during the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, employed a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of being outsiders to Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation. These strategies include attending events that concentrate on bringing family and friends together in temporary and public settings, thereby providing not only a safe haven but also opportunities to positively identify as Jews and as Americans. Going to the movies certainly falls within this category. However, rather than being a modern cultural innovation, the concept of Jews going to the movies on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is steeped in long-standing tradition.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, even though most commercial establishments were closed on Christmas, immigrant Jews frequented entertainment venues that catered to Americans who did not celebrate Christmas. Jews residing in New York City were fortunate in being surrounded by a world of entertainment consisting of Yiddish theater, movies, arcades, dance halls, cafes and vaudeville houses to which, in fact, Jews contributed as store owners, actors, movie theater proprietors, and audiences. The fact that Jews lived in crowded conditions in the Lower East Side meant that entertainment centers catered to a built-in constituency that clamored for diversion from their long and difficult living and working conditions. Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan became avid purveyors and consumers of commercial leisure. Eastern European Jews, who spoke Yiddish, enjoyed attending performances of the Yiddish theater, which stayed open on Christmas. As early as 1917, theater advertisements for plays being performed on Christmas Day appeared in the Yiddish press; some plays actually opened on Christmas.

According to Jewish film scholar Judith Thissen, who has extensively researched Jewish patronage of the movies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a film that generated significant controversy at that time was entitled “The Jew’s Christmas.” The narrative involves a rabbi who sells his copy of the Torah to buy a Christmas tree for a poor little girl. It is ultimately revealed that this little girl is the Rabbi’s granddaughter and the film ends happily with the family reunited around the Christmas tree. According to Thissen, Moving Picture World documented that a large delegation of rabbis witnessed the projection of the film and was satisfied with the story and its treatment of Jewish ceremony and custom. The rabbis did, however, look with disfavor on the title of the film. Thissen then asserts that the film was viewed with less tolerance by Tageblatt finding the last scenes particularly offensive.

On a broader scale, the Lower East Side saw the expansion of the nickelodeon, a moving picture of short-duration accompanied by illustrated songs. The price of admittance was a nickel.  This medium was very popular among Jewish residents; nickelodeon shows ran in a continuous loop from morning until evening. People went from one theater to the next: “It is heaven and earth and moving pictures,” reported the Forward in May 1908. There were more nickelodeons situated in the Lower East Side than anywhere else in New York City. Andrew Heinze notes that nineteen nickel theaters were scattered along the Second and Third Avenue streetcar lines of the East Side. By 1908, forty-two were located in or adjacent to the Lower East Side and ten were in the uptown area branded as Jewish Harlem.  Adolph Zukor was the first nickel theater entrepreneur in Manhattan who opened in 1904 a modest theater above his penny arcade that was accessible through a glass staircase beneath which water cascaded over lights of changing hue.  On Jewish holidays, the nickelodeons and Yiddish theaters attracted big crowds.

The high attendance levels of Jewish audiences in movie theaters did not go unnoticed. Christian authorities apparently were distressed by the fact that Jews went to the movies on Christmas Eve in New York. Resultantly, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. ordered the closing of all New York City nickelodeons on December 24, 1908, believing that the new medium degraded community morals. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was founded in 1909 to protest the Mayor’s censorship. Its lobbying effort was successful in facilitating the opening of nickelodeons once again on Christmas.

Which brings us to today! According to one Long Island Native, now living in San Francisco, “there seems to be an unwritten law that Jews in New York have to go to a Chinese Restaurant and then a movie on Christmas Eve.”

For an in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter One of A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) entitled “Coming to the New World: Can The American Jew Keep Christmas?”

For an in-cinema experience: see Seth Rogan’s recently released film: The Night Before.

For a listing of recommended movies, old and new, to view on Christmas Eve via NetFlix, see: http://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/jewish-movies-to-watch-on-christmas#.xgYymgxlP