Miami — With no tradition of leaving cookies for Santa, no church to attend and no expectation of presents in the morning, Christmas Eve used to hold little to look forward to for non-Christians - until the Matzo Ball and other night-before-Christmas parties.
Part reunion, part date night, these parties draw thousands of people. The granddaddy of them all, the Matzo Ball, will be put on this year at clubs in six cities.
Organizers say the events are open to everyone, though the crowds are overwhelmingly Jewish singles and couples in their 20s and 30s.
"For Jews, Christmas Eve has become the dating or the matchmaking night," said Andy Rudnick, 42, creator of the Matzo Ball. "That's the night that things happen."
Rudnick was just out of college when he threw the first Matzo Ball party - named for the large dumpling featured in traditional Jewish cuisine - in Boston in 1987. To his surprise, 2,000 people showed up. It's grown ever since, and Rudnick, who has moved to Florida, even met his wife at a Matzo Ball in 1997.
This year, the parties are in Boston, New York, Denver, Washington, Miami and Boca Raton.
The Matzo Balls have competition. A party sponsored by the Tampa Jewish Federation is called Vodka Latke after the Jewish pancakes, and the Eve Party in Miami Beach is hosted by an organization called Jmerica. In Los Angeles, it's the Schmooz-a-Palooza, which has drawn more than 1,000 people in the past, and New York has The Ball, now in its 12th year.
"I think that every two seconds on the radio you hear another Christmas song and everywhere you go you see Christmas trees," said Lewis Weinger, who organized the Schmooz-a-Palooza for 12 years before JDate took over. "I think in a predominantly non-Jewish environment, even Los Angeles, I think it's an important night for Jewish people to get together and connect and to party and be proud they're Jewish."
Robert Fellman, 31, of Boca Raton, said he has attended the Matzo Ball ever since he turned 21.
"I look forward to it all year. It's definitely not just another night out," he said.