Hanukkah: The Jewish Christmas
I have begun to hear these words with increased frequency as I go about my daily schedule. This tells me Christmas is coming up. As I have spent my entire life wearing a kippah and living in an area with a small Jewish population, I generally receive about three “Happy Hanukkahs” a day during this time of year.
Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the fact that people take the time to wish me well and it always brings a smile to my face. But the thing that I find the most interesting is that Hanukkah is the time of year that I get wished happy holidays with the most frequency. Hanukkah is actually only a minor holiday, created in the post-Biblical period and scarcely mentioned throughout the Talmud. If we were ranking the importance of Jewish holidays based on either theological or historical significance, Hanukkah would be pretty low on the list.
However, the winter holiday has taken on a life of its own within American culture. According to recent projections as many as 85% of American Jews may celebrate Hanukkah in some fashion this upcoming year. Whenever we have 85% of Jews all agreeing on something, it is worth taking a deeper look.
Historically, the holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple by the Maccabees when they fought against and reclaimed Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire. It is this military victory in the 2nd century BCE that began the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty and became the launching and focal point of Hanukkah. The miracle of the candles staying lit for eight nights does not actually appear in Hanukkah’s early sources, and was probably a later invention in an attempt to remove the focus and idealism of the military victory after the Bar Kochba revolt hundreds of years later. See here for more.
Hanukkah in America, however, has its own history that knows nothing of ancient wars, temples, and dynasties. In the past 200 years, American Hanukkah has become its own holiday with unique and distinct identifying factors, and would probably be unrecognizable to past Jewish communities.
As much as it upsets me when Hanukkah is called the Jewish Christmas, any honest conversation of Hanukkah in America must begin precisely there. As Dianne Ashton argues in her recent book Hanukkah in America: A History, Hanukkah only began to obtain its special identity in the mid-19th century, precisely when public Christmas celebrations were increasing on the road to becoming a nationally-recognized American holiday.
A group of reform Rabbis at the time began to notice that many Jewish children felt left out during Christmas time and so they feared that groups of young Jews may begin to celebrate Christmas en masse. In response, many Reform leaders began rebranding Hanukkah as a communal and synagogue-based holiday, instead of the home-based holiday that it had become in Europe (more on this later). Once Hanukkah started to become a more communal or public holiday, it was only a matter of time before the markets caught on.
Due to the sheer chance of Hanukkah falling out so close to Christmas on the American calendar, the early trends of consumerism and commercialism in the beginning of the 20th century took hold of Hanukkah and never looked back. Ads began to talk about eight nights of presents as a Hanukkah staple, and as Ashton argues, many parents used presents as a way to convince their children to choose Hanukkah over its Christmas rival ("Instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights!"). Hanukkah gelt, which in Europe used to be actual money given to one’s children so that they would be able to tip their school teachers, became pieces of chocolate that are widely distributed at Hanukkah functions. By the middle of the 20th century, Hanukkah had spread to the point where nearly every American understood that it was a part of the American holiday season.
There is a part of me that is slightly saddened by the commercialization and secularization of Hanukkah. I believe that each Jewish holiday has profound lessons, both historical and philosophical to teach us, and it upsets me that the vast majority of the people who will celebrate Hanukkah this year know nothing about the history and symbolism of the day. But in my mind, this potential downside is almost entirely eclipsed by the historical importance of Hanukkah becoming mixed in with Christmas.
From an American perspective it may seem completely normal that, in the past 200 years, Hanukkah has become a public holiday and is often called the Jewish Christmas. However, in Europe, this could not have been further from the truth. As Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Christmas season became a perfect time for the proliferation of anti-semitism as many Christians sought revenge for the mistaken belief that we killed Jesus.
All throughout Europe, it was common for pogroms to erupt around Christmas time. In the late middle ages, European Rabbis actually forbade Jews from going to the Beit Midrash (study halls) on Christmas eve because it was considered risking one’s life. In the 17th century Christmas was widely referred to as Nittel Nakht (lit. birth night) and Jews would gather indoors to play cards and other board games, because leaving the house was too unsafe. In 1881 in Warsaw, as Hanukkah and Christmas were beginning to become parallel holidays in America, Jewish businesses were attacked for two days straight surrounding Christmas time.
Whenever I am wished “Happy Hanukkah” I cannot help but think of how lucky I am to have been born in a time and country where the holiday season is occasion for increased jubilance for everyone. Instead of the holiday season being a time for hiding, it is a time where we practice our Judaism in the most public of forums with public menorah lightings (widely spread by Chabad in the 1970s) and joint holiday celebrations. So this year while we enjoy our dreidels (a 200-year-old Jewish knock off of a German game) and our latkes (a 200-year-old Eastern European food), we should acknowledge just how fortunate we are to be able to celebrate partake in the American holiday season with outward pride and a deep sense of belonging.
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Why is the Book of Maccabees not read on Chanukah? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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