Hanukkah mistaken for Jewish Christmas

A friend of mine recently went into a store to buy an item she had seen advertised. The clerk apologized to her because the item was out of stock but assured her it would be in by the holidays. My friend replied, “Not my holiday. Hanukkah begins on Friday, Dec. 3, this year.”
Every winter, Jews are faced with the December dilemma. We live in a culture that glorifies Christmas. Although Christmas is not celebrated by all Americans, our society often overlooks this. Christmas seems to last the full month from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day and pervades every aspect of our being. The dilemma Jews face is how to celebrate our winter holiday, Hanukkah, given the tone set by the predominantly Christian culture.
Hanukkah is a distinct holiday that was never meant to compete with or masquerade as Christmas. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. Christmas is a celebration surrounding the birth of Jesus for Christians. Hanukkah is about the retaking and rededication of the ancient temple 2,000 years ago.
It is a celebration of religious liberation commemorating the Maccabee victory over the Greek army that tried to forbid certain Jewish practices and hellenize Jewish civilization. Hanukkah is about the rights of human beings to live and worship in freedom.
In the Jewish holiday cycle, Hanukkah is not a major holiday. For example, there is no prohibition against work on Hanukkah. In Israel, they don’t celebrate Hanukkah as extravagantly as we do here.
And yet, those of us who have grown up in America see that Hanukkah is not a minor holiday. In the American Jewish cycle, Hanukkah has taken on an importance disproportionate to its traditional significance. Apart from Passover, Hanukkah is the second most celebrated holiday by Jews in America. The proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas has been used as an opportunity to elevate the status of Hanukkah.
The reaction of Jews to the increased attention on Hanukkah varies according to individuals. Some fight it and patiently explain that Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” and that it has its own distinct message. Others take advantage of the season — not by making Hanukkah a Christmas substitute — but rather focusing on the holiday’s themes and customs: freedom, miracles, lighting candles and gathering with family and friends.
Either way, every year at this time, Jews affirm themselves as Jews. No matter what we do, and despite everything we hear about separation of church and state, we live in a very Christian culture.
At no time of year do Jews feel their minority status more keenly than at Christmas. The songs on the radio and in the department stores are not ours. The greetings extended to us do not apply. Winter vacations revolve around Christmas, not Hanukkah. Jews feel remote from the center of America when Christmas rolls around.
Christmas time is, for many Jews, a first lesson in Jewish identity. By being so left out for at least a month of the year, Jews experience being the “other.”
From a very young age, many Jews learn to say that they don’t celebrate Christmas. I remember the glee I felt as a young child in saying I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Maybe I was really saying I don’t believe in Jesus Christ.
I learned that I could have a very different belief system and voice it without fear of negative consequences, such as going to hell.
Much of our American secular culture tries to make Hanukkah into a Christmas equivalent. In second grade, when I was a Brownie, my troop leader asked my mother to come in to explain Hanukkah. Why was she asked to volunteer at this holiday and not at Passover or Shavuot? It’s clear that non-Jews view Hanukkah as the Jewish alternative to Christmas.
Emphasizing Hanukkah is one way that non-Jews try to affirm and celebrate the differences between Jews and Christians. Yet Hanukkah is often an afterthought, an ill attempt to pacify Jews during the long Christmas season. I remember the “holiday assemblies” I attended in my public elementary and middle schools. We sang almost all Christmas songs — with one Hanukkah song thrown in so Jewish parents wouldn’t complain. Hanukkah always ends up short in these attempts to be inclusive.
It is important that Hanukkah remain distinct in and of itself. There are many ways in America that Hanukkah has become “Christmasified” with Hanukkah decorations, cards and cookies, etc.
We must recognize that Christmas customs, no matter how removed they might seem from religious meaning, are borne of the Christian tradition. Hanukkah does not need to be like Christmas to be fully celebrated. The Jewish tradition offers candles to light, prayers to be said, dreidles to play with and songs to sing. We should pay attention to Hanukkah’s distinct practices and guard against borrowing from the Christmas tradition.
Christmas is a primary holiday in the Christian cycle while Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish cycle. But Hanukkah in the American Jewish cycle might be among the most important holidays in forging identity. And that might be reason enough to elevate the celebration of Hanukkah in its own unique form. It can be an opportunity for us, as Jews, to affirm our identity and educate non-Jews about the significance and customs of our tradition.
Rabbi Sharon Stiefel is the associate director at Hillel; The Jewish student center at the University.