Many Americans assume that Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. They put it on par with other major Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Some just assume that Hanukkah is the most significant Jewish holiday, because it falls around Christmas time. But the menorah isn’t the Jewish equivalent of an artificial Christmas tree and there certainly isn’t a Santa archetype within the Jewish tradition. What most don’t realize is that Hanukkah is officially listed as a “minor” Jewish holiday, but it’s a holiday that has taken on a larger role over time in response to the popularity of Christmas and has become an opportunity for Jewish families to enjoy some time together.
Memories of Latkes, Sevivon and Dreidels
For many Jewish people, the absence of requirements and food restrictions connected with other major Jewish holidays makes Hanukkah seem easy, more festive and more fun by comparison. Many Jews have come to really look forward to Hanukkah, planning holiday parties free of the structure and restrictions of Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Parties, gift giving, and candle lighting ceremonies take place in Jewish communities during Hanukkah. Rich, oily, and deep fried foods are served in honor of the miracle oil lamp that burned eight times longer than it should have.
Although research is showing that Hanukkah is now more celebrated than Passover, it still has a unique place in holiday culture. Many Jews remember learning about the origins of Hanukkah- How the Maccabees re-established the Temple, and how enough oil was found to sustain light. Songs like Sevivon and treats like Sufganiyot (fried, filled doughnuts) keep festive childhood memories of the holiday spirit alive for many Jews around the world. However, growing up shifted attention to the more serious holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) for their symbolism and meaning, and as the time to see family and distant relatives and dovin (pray) in synagogue together. Hanukkah slowly slips out of from under spotlight.
American Holiday Spirit
In some ways, there is overlap between Hanukkah and Christmas. American Jews can’t ignore the hype of the Christmas season, and by default, will sometimes take part in it’s pseudo nature, engaging in their Christian friends and co-workers’ Christmas activities. This isn’t to say that Hanukkah is such a minor holiday that it becomes phased out by Christmas, but rather Christmas is such a deep-rooted part of what it means to be American, that to abstain from any slightest participation of the holiday would be a challenge. Of course, most Orthodox wouldn’t partake in Christmas activities, but it’s even rare for anyone, let alone moderately conservative Jews to turn their back away from gazing upon beautiful Christmas lights or to reject an invitation to an office Christmas party. These mainstream traditions have become secular and they seem to be more “American” than they’re “Christian.”
A Hanukkah Tree?
The idea of a “Jewish Christmas” or Hanukkah Tree may have stemmed from the media portrayal of Christmas as a universal holiday, and possibly from misconceptions that some non-Jews may have of Jewish participation of the festive season. While a small fraction of non-practicing Jews may decorate their homes with Christmas Trees and Santa stockings during December, the same practice would be rare for their observant counterparts and the majority of Jews. This raises the deeper question of the fundamental differences between observant and non-observant Jews as it relates to religious identity.
In either case, the way that many Jews celebrate Hanukkah today has gradually come to emulate some of the ways that Americans celebrate Christmas. Without the pressure and restrictions that the “major” Jewish holidays require and serve whatever foods they choose. Many send Hanukkah photo cards or participate in holiday gift giving that mirrors the Christmas gift exchanges of Americans. So what do Jewish families do on a day where everything is closed, where all lines of business are halted and where even many Jewish deli’s aren’t even open? For many families, this is the ideal opportunity to enjoy delicious Chinese cuisine at their local Chinese restaurant (which are usually open), and catch a flick at the theater. A Jewish-non-Christmas-Christmas tradition! Sometimes a mixed bag is the only way!