December 25th in the Western world is typically a safe experience for Jews today. Aside from the constant risks of assimilation, the Christmas holiday has taken on a more secular status for many. Yet, this was not always the case. Often, it was a deadly and fearful time of year for Jews, a time to lay low and hide.
Celebrations around December 25th occurred well before the beginning of Christianity. Pagans in the ancient Roman Empire celebrated the Saturnalia festival, when the custom was to temporarily suspend many moral rules in society. Jews often became targets during this period. Taunting of Jews and other outsiders was common. One popular event during Saturnalia was to force Jews to run naked through the streets, watched by the cheering crowds.
During the First Crusade, Christian volunteers rampaged through Europe killing thousands of Jews. On December 25th 1100, a French count was crowned King of Jerusalem by the triumphant Crusaders. Following that pronouncement, many Jews and Muslims living in Jerusalem were slaughtered.
On Christmas day in 1312, anti-Jewish riots broke out in various Germanic states. A Christmas decree was given in Sicily in 1369, declaring that all Jews had to wear a special badge in public: https://www.aish.com/ci/s/Black-Christmas-December-25-in-Jewish-History.html.
In the ghetto of Rome as late as the 18th and into the 19th century, rabbis were singled out by authorities during the Christmas season. They were made to wear outlandish costumes and then paraded around the rest of the city, while being jeered and having objects thrown at them: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/51928?lang=bi.
In more recent centuries, the racist Ku Klux Klan was formally established on Christmas in 1865. In 1881, a Christmas pogrom broke out in Poland, lasting for three days. A synagogue in West Germany was painted with swastikas on Christmas in 1959, followed by a wave of synagogue desecrations in that country.
In a reaction, many Jews of Central and Eastern Europe came to fear the winter holiday season. The religious tended to stay away from going to synagogue or school to study during Christmas, a tradition that has remained for a number of observant Jews to this day. Instead, they stayed locked up in their homes with their lights dimmed. Many also stayed up all night, fearing attacks by groups coming home from Catholic midnight mass services.
By the later 19th century, many assimilated secular Jews in Western Europe fully indulged in Christmastime traditions. Seen as a stepping stone towards inclusion in society, Christmas trees were often placed in Jewish homes. When Vienna’s chief rabbi came to visit modern Zionism founder Theodore Herzl’s house in December 1895, the Herzl family had a prominent Christmas tree displayed there: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jews-christmas/.
In North America, many of the Christmas traditions of Western Europe continued. Extended Jewish families gathered on Christmas to celebrate a hybrid of Christmas and Hanukkah traditions. Some reform congregations adopted parts of Christmas traditional holiday decorations and songs.
Towards the end of the 20th century, Jews were more likely to focus on enhancing the importance of Hanukkah on its own, as an alternative or addition to Christmas. Less frequently were Christmas trees found in Jewish households. However, with the rise in interfaith families into the 21st century, hybrid or dual celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah were increasingly common.