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.”