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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Hanukkah: a Jewish Christmas?

Practicing Jewish UC Davis students give insight to the Americanization of Hanukkah 

By SIERRA JIMENEZ — arts@theaggie.org

When you think of Judaism, more likely than not, Hanukkah comes to mind — and maybe with it, menorahs, chocolate coins and Adam Sandler’s SNL performance of “The Chanukah Song,” which he wrote “for all those nice little Jewish kids who don’t get to hear any Hanukkah songs” except for dreidel, dreidel, dreidel on constant repeat. 

There is a reason for the stark contrast between the short list of commonly-known Hanukkah songs and the abundance of omnipresent Christmas songs. The fact of the matter is that Hanukkah is simply not the most important holiday in Jewish culture in comparison to other holidays like Rosh Hashanah (“Jewish New Year”) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”). 

“I think that a lot of people don’t grow up around Jewish people, and the only thing they know about the Jewish tradition is Hanukkah,” said Anna Fox, a fourth year global disease biology major. 

From a poll conducted on my Instagram story, 38% of the 151 participants, who are mostly college-aged, and 77% of whom don’t identify as practicing Jews, voted Hanukkah as the most significant Jewish holiday. 

Fox said that practicing Jews like herself are not offended by the lack of knowledge portrayed by American culture of the holiday season, but actually find it “funny” and “interesting” or simply unbothered by the idealization of a less significant holiday of Jewish culture. 

“It’s cool to see representation in stores around the holidays…it’s better than nothing to bring people aware of another culture,” Fox said. 

Leah Kalish, a sociology-organizational studies 2021 Davis graduate and practicing Jew, just received a spatula that says, “I love you a-latka,” as a gift from her mother for Hanukkah this year. 

It is “interesting that this is when Jews in America get representation,” she said. Hanukkah just happens to fall near Christmas, and during the consumer-driven holiday season, so just like that, money-driven corporations decided to capitalize on yet another holiday. 

“The same way Hanukkah has gotten Americanized to be an equivalent of Christmas is the same way so many people who are Christians have adopted this new version of Christmas,” Fox said. “Same consumer pressures.”

Just as Christmas has become a consumer-driven holiday, Hanukkah has gotten the attention of gift giving as well. However, Hanukkah is about “the perseverance, anti-assimilation and light miracles that are in our lives and in our time,” said Rudy Lautner, a fourth-year environmental science and management major.

Traditionally, Hanukkah is a holiday of remembrance of Jewish persecution in the second century BCE. Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” the ritual of lighting the menorah for eight nights symbolizes the miracle in which the oil of the Temple lights, which were expected to last for one night, instead lasted for eight. 

“The gift giving on Hanukkah came up, at least in America/[the] Western world, as a response to little Christian kids getting gifts and trying to even commercialize it to an extent as they did with Christmas,” Lautner said. “[It’s] a weakened, flaccid commercialization [of Hanukkah], because you go to a Target and you’ll have a little Hanukkah shelf, and that’s about it.” 

Lautner said that the commercialization of Hanukkah has become “antithetical” to its true meaning and regarded as a sort of “Jewish Christmas” in American culture, when it is actually “its own distinct thing with different lessons and different historical origins and different cultural aspects.” 

It is ironic that Hanukkah, a holiday historically about anti-assimilation, is now becoming assimilated into American culture as a Christmas equivalent for Jewish people or “watered down to just Jewish Christmas,” Lautner said. 

“I think it’s interesting, I think it’s an example of how religion is changing for a lot of young people,” Fox said. “And ultimately, I’m sure this is something that is a shared sentiment for so many other holidays and other cultures.” 

It is hard not to get wrapped up in the gifts and lights of the holiday season, but it is important to remember what the true meaning of the holiday season really is, and not conflate different cultures’ celebrations into one big Western holiday. 

Lighting the menorah is a cultural, ethnic ritual to remember the history and miracles of Jewish culture. Lighting the candles brings about “lights during essentially the darkest time of the year,” said Lautner, and represents the Jewish notion of being a light among the nations. 

Written by: Sierra Jimenez — arts@theaggie.org

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