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Hanukkah, despite being a relatively minor Jewish holiday (indeed it is a festival), has become “Jewish Christmas,” even though religiously it’s not nearly as important as Christmas. Why?

Hanukkah, despite being a relatively minor Jewish holiday (indeed it is a festival), has become “Jewish Christmas,” even though religiously it’s not nearly as important as Christmas. Why?

Hanukkah, despite being a relatively minor Jewish holiday (indeed it is a festival), has, in the broader culture, become "Jewish Christmas," even though religiously it's not nearly as important as Christmas. Why?

One thing that’s important to note is that two things are simultaneously true:

  1. Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish canon that has achieved outsized prominence in recent decades
  2. Chanukah has been celebrated by Jewish families for thousands of years in various forms, and in its essence in ways not that dissimilar from how it’s celebrated today

There are a few different kinds of holidays on the Jewish calendar. One type is actual holidays, or yamim tovim (yom tov in the singular)- these include the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as well as Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot. (Pesach and Sukkot are further complicated by the fact that they are week-long holidays which contain days called chol hamoed, which don’t have the sanctity of yom tov but do retain a quality of the holiday.)

Traditionally, these included special synagogue services, unique practices, and, in Jewish law, included specific restrictions in activity akin to those on Shabbat. They were designated as “different” from regular days of the week.

Chanukah, along with Purim, is not considered a yom tov in the same way. Life continues as normal, with the exception of the requirement to perform certain practices. On Chanukah, that practice is lighting the menorah, and then there are a few very minor modifications to prayers.

Besides the few minutes of the evening that it takes to light the menorah, according to Jewish law and custom, there is no difference between the week of Chanukah and the weeks before and after. This is what makes Chanukah a “minor holiday” according to Jewish law. (Part of this also comes down to the difference between biblical and rabbinic laws, but that’s way beyond my scope here.)

So essentially, as anyone who celebrates the major holidays knows, what a minor holiday means in this context is a “less stressful” holiday. It still contains meaning and the potential for celebration, and because its boundaries and customs are so fluid and unconstrained by Jewish law, it can be emphasized or deemphasized as one wishes, as a general rule.

There have been customs arisen around the celebration of Chanukah for centuries if not millennia, and while those have changed over time (as have customs surrounding all kinds of things, including Christmas!), it’s not that Chanukah has been plucked from obscurity to compete with Christmas. (If anything, I’d maybe give that title to Tu B’Shvat, but we digress.) Chanukah had long been in existence and celebrated, but perhaps it has been assigned different levels of meaning at different points in time.

And yes, on a certain level, Chanukah was elevated in people’s perceptions to compete with Christmas. Christmas culture could be (and generally still is!) pervasive to the point of being suffocating to concelebrants in the US (which is where I’ll mostly confine this answer to because it is the home of by far the largest modern Jewish community outside Israel).

When one’s friends are in the school Christmas pageant or sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall or decorating a Christmas tree, it’s natural for one to want the same thing, as a kid. (Interestingly, part of this phenomenon came to be because Jewish merchants were often the ones selling the trappings of Christmas to their Christian neighbors- and bringing them home to their own families, to the chagrin of many rabbis and Jewish communal leaders.)

Answers to this could include syncretization (the “Hanukkah bush,” for example), but they could also include making traditional Chanukah customs “bigger and better,” such as by increasing emphasis on Chanukah presents, Chanukah decorations, etc. (And it should be noted, this isn’t a 20th-century reaction, or one centered largely around consumerism- going back to the early 19th century, the separatist proto-Reform Jewish community of Charleston reacted to Christmas and their evangelical Christian surrounding culture by giving Chanukah a newly prominent place in their observance.)

It’s important to note that these kinds of reactions to Christmas weren’t (necessarily) about “oh cool, Christmas is awesome, let’s make Chanukah more like Christmas!” They were often just as much a way of directly COMPETING with Christmas. Back in 1874, a pageant called the “The Grand Revival of the National Holiday of Chanucka” took the form of pageants and similar events in the general culture, both Christian and generally civic, but was specifically intended to re-inspire Jews to commit to their Jewish faith.

These kinds of direct competition continue to this day, such as in the form of big public menorah lightings or synagogue celebrations, which manage to combine longstanding Chanukah celebration traditions (as we discuss below) with the goal of luring Jews away from Christmas.

And, of course, Chanukah came into prominence for other reasons as well, such as its connection with the incipient Zionist movement, which was immensely popular in the first half of the 20th century, and the fact that it was lay-led, which allowed tremendous leeway for innovation.

It was also a great holiday for children, and while some elements of it (like presents and decorations) may have developed with input from the surrounding culture, plenty of others (like the food, games, and songs) did not.

In addition, the fact that Chanukah could be celebrated without any of the restrictions associated with Jewish law- which were often dropped by immigrants to the US and their children- meant that it was one of the easiest for people to replicate in an effort to continue in the traditions of their ancestors. Celebrating Hanukkah, in fact, didn’t have to mean recognizing a religious aspect at all, which became increasingly relevant as American Jews became more secularized.

But focusing on this can obscure the fact that we have records of centuries of Chanukah celebrations and customs before this perceived Christmas culture clash! That didn’t really occur until Jews were in a somewhat equitable state with their neighbors- at the earliest, with emancipation in the 18th century.

Beforehand, Jews wouldn’t have dreamed of equating their holidays with those of their Christian neighbors, and yet they had plenty of their own. Chanukah has long held a major role in Jewish foodways, with latkes having a long and esteemed history (though not made from potatoes till quite recently!) and references to doughnuts, in various forms, also can be found in Jewish literature and custom as a Chanukah food quite a way back; in general, fried food was considered to be a reminder of the miracle of the oil and thus customary.

Dairy foods, as well, have been customary for centuries, and Jewish communities in different places would have their own specific customs. Various other customs, such as giving Chanukah gelt (money) to children, date back several hundred years in various forms, and there were also communal celebrations with singing and music as well as more private family parties with games, including dreidel or card games.

So basically, however much one may want to do one-to-one comparisons between modern Chanukah and modern Christmas, the essence of the Chanukah celebration as a phenomenon is long-standing.

And that’s why I’d like to focus for a second on the bit of your question that asks about Chanukah becoming a holiday that “gentiles recognize.” Even as Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song is all about the Jewish feeling of invisibility, the fact is that it aired on Saturday Night Live! In many ways, while gentiles recognizing Chanukah of course is due to its ubiquity in Jewish life, it can end up having a circular effect.

In many ways, the development of the “secular holiday season” is a big part of this- and of course, Jews were a major part in the “secularization of Christmas” in terms of popular culture, with half the classic Christmas songs written by Jews, often emphasizing more universalist elements of a winter holiday season (sleigh bells in the snow, chestnuts on the fire) rather than the overtly Christian ones.

With the development of a winter holiday season, while Christmas would, of course, be by far the predominant element, Chanukah (and also Kwanzaa, though I’m far less informed about this) could slide neatly in, and become one of the few parts of Jewish religion and tradition that the average American might be aware of.

A lot of the most prominent parts of the introduction of Chanukah to pop culture break the 20-year rule (though my personal favorite, A Rugrats Chanukah, does not! Check it out!), but the fact that Chanukah was uniquely positioned in this regard did it a lot of favors in terms of it becoming known in general (often Christian) American society.

It’s a lot easier to understand that “Chanukah is Jewish Christmas” than “Sukkot is that holiday in the fall when Jews sit in huts.” (Plus, with the ubiquity of intermarriage in the second half of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, the concept of a secular holiday canon and Chanukah as a part of it became very relevant as well.)

1. Written by u/hannahstohelit.
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