In the nineteenth century Christmas Eve was a night of fear and isolation for many East European Jews. Interestingly, there are traditions surrounding the words invoked by European Jews to describe “Christmas.” In his article entitled “Torah Study on Christmas Eve,” scholar and theologian Marc Shapiro maintains that the word “Christmas” never appears in “all of rabbinic literature.” Citing R. Eliezer of Metz , Shapiro concludes that the very mention of this idolatrous holiday whose name “expresses the idol’s divinity and lordship” is halakhically forbidden. This seems to have sufficed for most Jews vis-à-vis mentioning the word “Christmas.”
This explains why there was a body of Yiddish words denoting Christmas as spoken amongst the Jews of Eastern Europe which persisted until World War Two. Utilizing the results of a Columbia University survey conducted in the 1960’s of more than five hundred Yiddish speakers, Jeffrey Shandler posits that Yiddish speakers throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century and through the mid-twentieth century considered the word Nittel to be a lomdish, a scholarly term for Christmas. Shandler cites twenty different names for Christmas used by Yiddish speakers while living in Europe. Two questions in that survey related to Christmas: (1) what was the Christmas holiday called, and (2) what did one do on that day? Nittel was the name for the holiday most often cited by the respondents. Many other names invoked by the local Jews were tied to a particular European geographic region and were often a variation of the common local name for the holiday (e.g., Jews in Alsace, Galicia and Western Poland used VayNahkht, a name parodying the German WeiNahkhten). Certain names were descriptive in character. The Jews in southern and central Europe called Christmas Eve GoyimNahkht (Gentiles’ night), ToleNahkht (night of the crucified one) and YoyzlsNahkht (Jesus night).
Certain of the names invented by European Jews to refer to Christmas transcend being merely descriptive in character and actually denote the feelings of fear and dread Jews harbored about Christmas Eve. In Galicia and Ukraine, Christmas was referred to as Finstere Nahkht (dark night), Moyredike Nahkht (fearful night), and Blinde Nahkht (blind night). Moyredike Nahkht directly alludes to being fearful of persecution on Christmas Eve. Fear influenced behavior. The name, Blinde Nahkht denotes a night in which the light of Torah study is curtailed. Finstere Nahkht signifies the darkness maintained in Jewish homes during Christmas Eve. According to Shandler, the names epitomize the essence of the East European Jewish response to Christmas. Fear was apparent but not the only sentiment expressed. Terms such as beyz geboyrenish (evil birthing), Yoyzlsnahkht (Jesus night) and Veynahkht (woe-night) verbally scoff at the very source of the fear while simultaneously acknowledging its existence. Though not as widespread today, the practice of calling Christmas by the name Nittel has persisted in certain Yiddish speaking Hasidic and orthodox communities in the United States, especially in New York communities in Brooklyn, Muncie and Kiryat Joel. For example, amongst the Satmar Hasidic community, one term used for Christmas is Bitel Nahkht (a verbal parody of Bitul Torah, an expression referring to the suspension of Torah learning on Christmas Eve).