Christmas Pogroms

Most of us know Christmas as the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus, but not many are aware that the Jewish People have a long and bloody history with Christmas. 

 

BACKGROUND 

Christmas originated in the Roman Empire as a pagan festival known as “Saturnalia.” On the final day of the festival — December 25th — the Romans believed that they could destroy the forces of darkness by raping and murdering innocent men and women. 

With the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the Romans retained the pagan tradition of Saturnalia, hoping that in doing so pagans would come to accept Christianity. 

The issue, however, was that Saturnalia had no Christian relevance. To fix the problem, Christian leaders decided that the last day of the festival would commemorate the birthday of Jesus. 

 

A REVIVAL OF ANCIENT TRADITION

In the 15th century, Pope Paul II revived some of Saturnalia’s most nefarious traditions for the amusement of the citizens of Rome.

Jewish People were over-fed and forced to run naked through the streets while Christians laughed and jeered.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish rabbis in Rome made to wear clown outfits as they raced through the streets. As they ran, the crowds attacked them with various types of missiles.

 

INCITEMENT TO VIOLENCE 

But the historical oppression of the Jewish People on Christmas extends way beyond ridicule. 

In the late 1800s — particularly in Eastern Europe — it was customary for Christian leaders to incite violence against their Jewish neighbors. 

For example, in 1881, in Warsaw, Poland, a dozen Jews were murdered, while countless others were maimed and brutally raped and their properties were destroyed. 

 

FEAR-BASED FOLKLORE 

Over the centuries, Jewish folklore formed due to the association of Christmas with violence. In Eastern Europe, for example, the church bells on Christmas Eve served as a warning for Jews to go home.

It became customary for Jews not to study the Torah on Christmas, as many feared that the Christian deity might grab hold of it and defile the Holy Book. This tradition is still observed in some Hasidic communities to this day. They also covered their pots so that the Christian god wouldn’t poison their water. 

Jews also made sure not to do anything on Christmas that could be misconstrued as honoring Jesus. For example, it was traditional to cook garlic bread, which would drive the Christian deity away due to its strong smell. Others played cards, dreidel (sevivon), or chess. 

 

AN APPEAL TO THE POPE 

In 1836, the Jewish community of Rome asked Pope Gregory XVI to put an end to the abuse of the Jewish People on Christmas.

The Pope refused, stating: “It is not opportune to make any innovation.”

 

IT’S NOT JUST CHRISTMAS 

Despite the bloody history of Christmas, Easter-time pogroms in Europe were much more common, possibly due to the warmer weather, as more Christians were out on the streets and thus much more likely to attack Jews.

Blood libels — or false claims about Jews killing Christian children to drink their blood for ritual purposes — were also commonplace during Easter. Blood libels often resulted in anti-Jewish massacres (pogroms).