Christmas Punning


By Philologos

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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We’re already into the new year, but in this column it’s still Christmas. Our discussion of nitl two weeks ago needs to be continued.

In the first place, two readers, Mark Friedman and Harvey Gertel, have written in to help explain the traditional Eastern European Jewish custom, referred to by me, of playing cards on Christmas Eve. Mr. Friedman writes:

The most precious commandment for religious Jews is learning Torah…. The only time Jews would not learn was at times of personal or communal mourning — and on Nitlnacht. There would be no learning to bring honor and merit to the one that was born on that night. That was why frivolous activities like card playing would take place.

And Mr. Gertel has this to say:

My mother, born and raised in Lodz, Poland, always recounted how her very Orthodox parents and relatives would indeed play cards only on this one night of the year.Her reasoning, however, was that this was because Jews were afraid to venture out on that night and were better off staying indoors. This seems to be born out by the [halachic volume] Sefer ha-Mit’amim, which, in its chapter on nitl, speaks of a rabbinic injunction to stay home on Christmas Eve because Christians might beat up Jews, while at the same time forbidding Jews to study Torah lest it be thought that this was being done in “his [Jesus’] honor.”

These two letters complement each other. Yet a third letter, in connection with my suggestion that nitl was in part a pun on nit, comes from Ruven Gottlieb, who writes:

I spent some time in [the chasidic neighborhood of] Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and learned some Yiddish there. The locals referred to Christmas as Kratzmakh, a made-up Yiddish word that sounds like “Scratch-me.”

Meanwhile, I did some more research myself and came across an interesting discussion of nitl and other Eastern-European Jewish terms for Christmas in Volume III of “The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry.” Punning derogatorily in different languages on Christian words for this holiday, it turns out, was indeed a time-honored Jewish practice. The “Atlas” even agrees with me in explaining the shift of the “a” in Latin natalis to the “i” in Yiddish nitl as deriving from such a play on words, although it suggests that the word played on was not nit, “no” or “nothing,” but rather Hebrew nitleh, “the hanged one,” one of a number of traditional rabbinic epithets for Jesus. Strengthening this theory is the fact that, in the Western Yiddish of the Rhineland, Christmas was sometimes known as taluy-nakht, “the night of the hanged man.” But of course, there is no reason why both nit and nitleh could not have contributed to the pun.

Here are some more examples of Jewish “Christmas puns” given by the “Atlas”:

• In Ukraine and Romania, Christmas was commonly referred to by Yiddish speakers as blinde nakht, “Blind Night.” This was a pun translated from the Ukrainian, in which sviatyi vechir, “sacred evening,” was first turned by Jews into slipyi vechir, “blind evening.”

• In parts of Belarus, a Jewish word for Christmas was khoristvo, a pun on Ukrainian rizdvo, “Christmas,” and Belorussian khori, “sick.”

• Some Yiddish speakers in Western Poland called Christmas beyz-geboyrenish, “Badly Born,” playing on Polish Boz.e Narodzenie, “Divine Birth.” (In this connection I might also mention the Yiddish saying, found in Ignacy Bernstein’s collection of Yiddish proverbs, “Nitl iz a beyze leyd,” “Nitl is a bad sorrow.” Can this be yet another pun on Yiddish leyd, “sorrow,” and Hebrew leydah, “birth” — that is to say, a pun on the pun of beyz-geboyrenish?)

It’s clear, I think, why Christmas should have inspired so many Jewish puns. It was a day that Jews not only feared, as Mr. Gertel points out, but also had an instinctive distaste for, it being the holiday on which Christians celebrated the incarnation of God in human form of all Christian beliefs, the one to strike the Jewish mind as the most absurd and repugnant. And yet no Jew would have wanted Christians to overhear him making fun of Christmas, a dangerous activity, to say the least. Jews therefore encoded this mockery in the form of puns that even Christians with some knowledge of Yiddish would be unlikely to understand. And this also explains why the most obvious of all puns on Christmas was never resorted to by Jews, although the “Atlas” mentions that some informants were well aware of its possibility. I am referring to the German word for Christmas, Weihnacht, from Weihe (the “w” is pronounced like a “v”), a consecration or dedication. How could German- or Yiddish-speaking Jews have resisted changing this to Wehnacht, punning on Weh, “grief” or “woe,” the vey of our Yiddish “Oy vey”? And yet resist it they did, for Wehnacht or veynakht was never a Jewish term for Christmas. Clearly, it would have been an unsafe one to use.

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