I estimate that 80 percent of you have no idea my Christmas started last night. I didn’t dig through a stocking for that trendy new piece of electronics or open a greeting card that sung to me. I’ve never tried eggnog and my grandma never bought me a sweater I felt was too itchy. I still don’t know what a partridge is, but I’m confident that if my true love really knew me, she wouldn’t waste her shekels getting me one. On my first day of Christmas, I played a lacrosse game at a community college.
Some Jews don’t even remember Hanukkah had started until at least day 3. They forget and still refuse to make the admission that New York Times columnist and Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson made yesterday, “The cruel truth is that Hanukkah … is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas.” However cruel the reality that Hanukkah walks dejectedly in the shadow of Santa Claus’ sleigh, it is by no means, however, a recent intellectual development.
In the early 1800s, in the same country where I now hear things like, “You don’t do Christmas? Bro, are you even American?” Christmas was a minor occasion too. The trend among early American settlers was to visit and exchange gifts on New Year’s Day, but by the turn of the century Protestant resistance to Christmas festivities had subsided, giving Christmas a violent shove into the December holiday limelight; the pious moved their gift giving up one week. As such, Jews who had formerly been celebrating Hanukkah as only the minor spiritual commemoration that it actually is, turned instead to this most joyous of then recent holiday trends. For immigrants (Jews included), celebrating Christmas became a way of fitting in an America where standing out could be dangerous.
For some Jews at the time, celebrating Christmas was intuitive; after all, as Jewish theologist Esther Ruskay wrote in 1902, Christmas “gives a zest to life that all the Hanukkah hymns in the world, backed by all the Sunday school teaching and half-hearted ministerial chiding, must forever fail to give.” Sound familiar?
Celebrating Christmas remained a common practice for some Jews until after World War I, when industrialism gave Christmas consumption a swift kick in the pants and opened up a new niche market for manufacturers, the market for a holiday to compete with Christmas. Popular packaged food products like Canada Dry ginger ale labeled themselves “Likhvod Hanukkah.” Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour named itself “the best flour for making latkes” and Crisco heralded allying “Hanukkah latkes with Modern Science.” By 1941, the words “If ever lavishness in gifts is appropriate, it is on Hanukkah” appeared in the book What Every Jewish Woman Should Know. Forty years prior, these would have been unfathomable in an equally unfathomable book.
With Hanukkah as a direct (albeit negligible) competitor with Christmas, it was time for American Jews to reexamine a concept Esther Ruskay brought up a century ago, Howard Jacobson brought up in the New York Times yesterday, and a concept I bring up today – that deep down, Jews often feel swindled because Hanukkah is clearly the poor relation of Christmas.
This inescapable truth of the nature of Hanukkah (as a consumer holiday, not as a spiritual celebration) brought about two polar schools of thought that persist into the modern aesthetic representing how we, as a Jewish people, need to move forward with our advocacy for our Christmas competitor. On the one hand, some felt “we have to rev-up Hanukkah, and for all its worth,” urging that we imitate if not Christmas then at least the enthusiasm of Christians. Spectrum opposite, some Jews noted that in their towns, “Hanukkah is no longer a Jewish holiday, it’s a major competitive winter sport… If Hanukkah comes earlier than Christmas, it’s an inoculation; if later, an antidote; either way we violently amplify it…what used to be a festival of freedom becomes a festival of refuge.”
Yet, despite the persistent bickering, Christmas and Hanukkah are conceptually very similar by many metrics of comparison: both find their foundation in a cultural identity through storytelling, celebrating an almost parable-esque morality. We gather together with our families, enjoying hot drinks and welcome conversation. We exchange gifts in the most material way of reminding each other that we do, in fact, care about someone other than ourselves. We do so once a year and rejoice in our own good nature. Hanukkah may not be Christmas, but December is not about the comparison.
So Jews, please don’t spend this December continuing to agonize over the relationship between Hanukkah and Christmas. Instead invite your friends to come help you rev up Hanukkah your way, but if they’d rather not, let them celebrate in the tranquility of whatever holiday environment they’re most comfortable. Everyone else (especially whomever outfitted the DC with fake snow and candy canes) be sensitive to the fact that holiday cheer doesn’t come so easy to everyone.
JOSH ROTTMAN will light candles when he has time and will both give and receive gifts if it’s practicable. He can be reached at email@example.com. Happy Hanukkah.