Chanukkah is Not the Jewish Christmas

7 years ago

There are a lot of things I like about Chanukkah -- having friends and family over, lighting the candles, and gambling with m&ms and a dreidel (sorry, I hate fried foods, so latkes and sufganiyot don't make the list). But what ruins the holiday for me is the Christmasization and commercialization of it simply due to its proximity to that other winter holiday.

I'm not talking about the gift giving or the emergence of Chanukkah candy (usually in scary blue and white colours to compete with the ubiquitous red and white candy canes). I'm talking about the fact that there are 16 Jewish holidays not counting Israeli holidays that many of us also celebrate such as Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day) or Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Seven of those holidays are important enough that Jews don't go to work on those days. Guess which holiday isn't one of those seven? That's right -- the minor holiday of Chanukkah.

Every non-Jew knows about it, every token Jew in the school is asked to educate the class about it (and yes, I have already been asked to come into the twins' school and teach the kids about Chanukkah traditions), it's written on every calender, and the White House even lights a freakin' chanukkiah. But traditionally, it has never been an important holiday for Jews. And frankly, it makes me a little depressed that for a lot of non-Jews, it's the only holiday they really know. (Seriously, I just told you that there were 16 holidays -- how many can you name?)

Christmas is wonderful. I love your music and listen to it nonstop from Thanksgiving until the holiday (my favourite: "O Holy Night"). I love your candy. Sparkle lights are gorgeous, and I've been known to take extremely circuitous routes home in order to gawk at as many decorated houses as possible. It sounds lovely to give and receive gifts. But it's your holiday; it's not mine.

And I don't really understand when people treat Chanukkah as if it were a Jewish Christmas. When they stress about gift buying and talk about the parties they're going to attend and send out holiday cards and listen to holiday music -- that's how you celebrate commercialized Christmas. And while I like to participate in Christmas via friends or family members who celebrate Christmas, when I return to my own, Jewish world, I want my holidays to look like my holidays. Right now, Chanukkah is looking like that girl who came back from summer vacation with a nose job. You know what I'm talking about, right? Every school has the girl who didn't tell anyone she was going to get it done, and we're all expected to keep silent as if she doesn't have an entirely new face.

As much as people want to believe that Christmas is a secular holiday that can be celebrated by everyone, I think the fact that Christ's name appears in the title sort of says it all. This is a holiday about the birth of Christ. Yes, people have taken Christmas and commercialized it -- but just because something is commercialized doesn't mean that it's secular. Nor does the fact that the majority of people in this country celebrate it make it accessible to all. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and I like that it is a Christian holiday. I don't want it watered down or changed, nor do I want my holiday looking like your holiday.

So this is what Chanukkah is about: it's a somewhat insignificant holiday meant to commemorate the time that King Antiochus instated laws not allowing Jews to practice their religion and the Macabees fought back. It's a story about guerrilla warfare and a revolution. About not waiting for G-d to intercede on your behalf, but fighting back against injustice. It is about a time when life sucked hardcore for the Jews and instead of putting down their heads and crying, they rolled up their sleeves and restored the Temple.

In other words, it's a pretty cool holiday on its own, but where gifts and sweetness have a place in a birthday celebration for Christ, presents and candy don't really commemorate a war. Jews don't celebrate war victories -- recognizing that death is a large part of war -- so this holiday is more about relief than outright joy. It would make more sense to use Chanukkah to go into the community and right a few wrongs. Or do a habitat for humanity-like project to fix up a home in need of repair. See, it's not really a holiday that can be celebrated like Christmas.

And yet, what can you do when the rest of America is trucking along with celebrating Chanukkah in this vein -- both Jews and non-Jews? We make hard choices all the time about letting the twins go with the flow vs. honour their religious commitments. I could take a stand and say that I'm not going to teach their class about Chanukkah. I could be the ultimate Grinch and not light the chanukkiah or have a party. But the fact is, I do like Chanukkah. I want to celebrate it. It just gets under my skin when her ballet school schedules a rehearsal on Shavuot (a really important Jewish holiday), but then the director gaily wishes everyone a Happy Chanukkah. It makes me want to scream when non-Jews focus on the wrong holidays.

Just as much as it makes me want to scream when Jews ride the Chanukkah wave and trot out that Chanukkah-is-the-Jewish-Christmas idea. In Hebrew school recently, the kids had to sit in a circle and recite this fill-in-the-blank line: "For Channukah I've been really good, so I want a..." As my husband pointed out, the only thing missing was having the kids sit down on Judah Macabee's lap for the requisite holiday photograph.

Chanukkah is a holiday about fighting assimilation, so it's sort of weird that a holiday about fighting assimilation has become assimilated in order to be more like the majority holiday close on the calendar. Jews should be proud of the holiday -- it's essentially a story of thanksgiving -- and pump up the parts that matter: family, friends, and fried foods.

On Chanukkah, we'll light the candles every night. And we'll play dreidel. And we'll have friends and family over for a few meals. And despite how much I hate fried foods, I will even eat a sufganiyot and latke. Family members may give the twins gifts. See, I like Chanukkah, I really do. But we take it for what it is. It's about huddling close and recognizing miracles.

I know there are plenty of Christians who dislike the commercialization of Christmas. And certainly, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that in the comment section. But I can only speak about Chanukkah, which -- for years -- was celebrated in a much more modest way, one that acknowledges its place within the Jewish holiday continuum and recognizes the reason we're celebrating. And I'm sad to see it become something its not.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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