When Hanukkah is not enough: Jews consider their place in Christmas culture

By Student Rabbi Jonathan Falco

December in America is unlike any other month. The cold bite of winter finally sets in, the sky grows dark earlier and consumerism abounds.

A confluence of all these factors gives way to the general feelings of cheeriness that characterize this holiday season. In just about every city, it seems as though we are inundated with fake icicles and the fresh smell of evergreen furs while Nat King Cole takes over the radio and becomes the elevator music a la mode.

Nativity scenes fill suburban lawns and neighbors quietly compete for the best display of Christmas lights in the neighborhood. Every year around this time, many American Jews begin wondering, “What is my relationship to this joyful holiday season that purportedly stems from a holiday that is not my own?”

Either way, we still get presents

In response to this question, there are a few options we may consider. First, one could reasonably argue that Christmas in 21st century America is less of a religious holiday and more of a civic celebration.

As long as one works to avoid overt religious practices and imagery associated with Christmas, there is little in the way of fully partaking in the revelry, Christmas tree and all (ignoring its pagan roots).

The other option to consider is celebrating Hanukkah with the same level of spirit as the greater society celebrates Christmas.

The other option to consider is celebrating Hanukkah with the same level of spirit as the greater society celebrates Christmas. In my experience, this tends to be the default for Jewish families in America today.

In such a case, some might argue there is little reason not to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah in the home. This is one approach a Jew might consider in an effort to join the surounding culture.

Instead of the Christmas tree in the living room there’s the Hanukkiah on the windowsill. Practically speaking, aside from a few other minor differences in detail like sufganiyot (the round, jelly Hanukkah donut) vs. Christmas cookies, not much is lost in terms of cultural celebratory experience.

This is a tempting and effective option for young families as they look to engender an appreciation for Jewish tradition in their children. After all, who doesn’t love eight nights of presents?

The Maccabees can still inspire

Both approaches have something to offer. Meanwhile, I would like to take a moment to reflect on a culturally significant aspect of Hanukkah that has endured throughout the ages.

Hanukkah celebrates the unlikely victory of Judah Maccabee over the army of Antiochus IV of Syria and as a consequence the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The lasting oil reminds us of our identity and who we are as a people. It alludes to our “otherness.”

As a result, Hanukkah — while still considered a “minor” holiday — has served as a reminder for Jews throughout the world and across time of a period when oppressed Jews asserted themselves and maintained their right to practice Judaism freely.

Our tradition that tells of the oil burning miraculously for eight days functions as a symbol of our status as God’s chosen people. In a sense, the lasting oil reminds us of our identity and who we are as a people. It alludes to our “otherness.”

As American Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country without fear of oppression.

As we think about Judah Maccabee’s victory this month, we act as links in the chain that is our tradition of lighting the festival lights.

As American Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country without fear of oppression.

Despite the culture of Christmas in December, I propose that it is OK for us celebrate Hanukkah in its own right for the minor holiday that it is.

It’s OK for us to embrace our differences from the wider culture, and it’s certainly OK for us to take pride in these differences.

I wish for all of us a joyously warm December (despite the cold) as we embrace our Americanism and our Judaism in whichever ways we deem fit.

Student Rabbi Jonathan Falco will serve United Hebrew Congregation throughout the 2018-19 academic year.

Snowflakes background for featured image courtesy of Kjpargeter.

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