Perhaps this talk should have been from a text, rather than extemporaneous. “Nittel-nacht” is a name found in many Jewish sources for “Christmas Eve.” Some Jewish communities had the tradition of not studying Torah at this time. The most compelling explanation is that the practice arose from staying home Christmas eve, rather than going to the House of Study—in order to avoid drunken hooligans celebrating Christmas eve. If that’s the case, the practice would reflect only practical considerations of safety—not theoretical discussions about the date or the meaning of the date. But many Rabbis offered explanations that make the observance reflect ideology or religion, not simply safety. These run from halachic arguments based on Tractate Avoda Zarah, which indeed has a discussion about what can and cannot be done surrounding the period from December 25 to January 1 (Saturnalia in Roman times) to numerological explanations “proving” that only 364 days of a solar year (365 ¼ days) can be devoted to Torah (no Torah Study on Tish’a Be’Av and 6 hours on Nittel)—to explanations that refer to impurity in the world or imitating non-Jewish practices. One argument I saw suggests that non-Jews are running to Divine Worship at midnight, so Jews could hardly be less religious—surprising in its positive implications for the value of Christian religious activity.
The dates of the Maharsho that I could not find in the talk are 1555-1631. The “Tekufa” is the “average calculated solstice or equinox,” that is, Jewish tradition uses the figure 365 1/4 days in a year (as in the Julian calendar), and divides this by 4, so each Tekufa comes 91 days and 7 1/2 hours after the previous one. At least in theory, the Tekufa of Tevet, (the “period of Winter”) was on December 25 in the year of Jesus’ birth, giving rise to the notion that “Nittl” should be marked on the evening when the Tekufah occurs. In the current year, the Tekufah occurs at 10:30 on 24 Tevet, that is Sunday January 6.
In the talk I mentioned the “Matza Ball” – a phenomenon in a number of US cities. I should note that Denver’s Matza Ball on Christmas eve was “unofficial” – unaffiliated with the group that organized the event with this name in other cities- and in any case is now continued under the name “Heebonism.”
I cited the Yiddish translation of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” — a description of which can be found elsewhere in in this blog:
Dec. 24 2012 (some editing Dec. 24-26).
On Lubavitch Rebbes playing chess: http://www.chabad.org/blogs/blog_cdo/aid/1074723/jewish/Playing-Chess-to-Win.htm
The photo of the 6th and 7th Lubavitcher Rebbes playing chess is widely disseminated on the web. There are many references to Lubavitcher Rebbes playing chess on Nittl Nacht. The most convincing website account accompaning the photo, however, suggests that the 6th Rebbe played chess in this photo not because it was Nitlnacht but because his doctor ordered him to take it easy at a spa, and he did not engage in his usual rigorous program of study and intellectual reflection. Nevertheless, he urged his son-in-law to “play to win.”