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THE HOLIDAY’S TRIUMPHANT RISE FROM AN OVERLOOKED AFTERTHOUGHT IS ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST SUCCESS STORIES.
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
It was the last day of Chanukah, and the family gathering was filled with holiday spirit. Gifts were exchanged, the menorah was lit amid prayers and sacred songs, and then everyone sat down for a festive meal. At one point during the evening, an older member of the family found himself alone in the living room with a young cousin. The little girl stared at the naked mantelpiece for a few moments and then suddenly asked, “Why can’t Santa Claus come to Jewish kids’ houses too?” Her disconcerted relative could only stammer, “Well, we’re still the chosen people.” And the girl looked him in the eye, defiant and unsatisfied, as only a six-year-old can.
Every Jewish family has a story like this. The religious educator Ron Wolfson, in his book The Art of Jewish Living: Hanukkah (1990), remembers one Christmas Eve in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, when he asked his mother, “Mommy, can we take down the Hanukkah things—just for tonight—so Santa Claus won’t know we’re Jewish?” His mother must have wished her son hadn’t learned his Passover lessons quite so well.
The universal childhood desire for more and better presents explains why in America Chanukah has come to be thought of as the Jewish Christmas—or as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, since a traditional Jewish Christmas, as any urban Jew can tell you, consists of Chinese food and a movie. (For suburbanites, Jewish Christmas consists of skiing.) Indeed, well-meaning gentiles often accord Chanukah more importance than casual or nonobservant Jews, who, when wished a Happy Chanukah, are sometimes embarrassed to respond, “Oh, has it started already?” But despite all the fuss, Chanukah is not really Jewish Christmas. It’s Jewish Kwanzaa.
To be sure, Chanukah does have a religious basis—unlike Kwanzaa, a weeklong nonsectarian holiday invented in the 1960s to promote African-American pride and solidarity. Chanukah celebrates the rededication in 165 B.C. of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem after a successful revolt against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus. Antiochus had desecrated the temple and required the worship of Greek gods until a hardy band of Jews, led by the indomitable Judah Maccabee, evicted the Syrians with a successful guerrilla campaign. According to legend, when the Jews recovered their temple, they had only enough consecrated lamp oil for a single day, but somehow it burned for eight days until more oil could be prepared. This miracle is commemorated in the eight branches of the Chanukah menorah, or chanukiyah (not counting the elevated shamos , which is used to light the others).
The real situation was not quite as tidy as the foregoing brief summary makes it appear. The Jews were not completely united, for example; a collaborationist faction happily went along with the Syrians’ demands. And after the Maccabees took power, they and their successors adopted numerous aspects of Syria’s culture (though not its religion) and exerted a tyrannical reign over their fellow Jews. Most important, perhaps, the tradition about one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days is not mentioned in any contemporary record. It first appeared several centuries later in the Talmud, a collection of commentaries and discussions of Jewish law and customs. That was also when the name Chanukah, meaning “rededication,” was adopted; before then, the holiday was known as the Festival of Lights.
Because of its postbiblical origins, some theologians classify Chanukah as a mere festival or “semiholiday.” Many other Jewish holy days are more important from a religious standpoint—not just Passover, Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) but also Simchat Torah, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Still, surveys show that among American Jews, Chanukah candle lighting vies with the Passover Seder as the most widely practiced religious ritual.
The reason, of course, is Christmas, which has posed a December dilemma to American Jews for more than a century and a half. In the 1840s, for example, the family of Mordecai Noah—a prosperous New York City journalist and lawyer who kept kosher—put up stockings to celebrate Christmas as the birthday of the religion that had spread monotheism around the world. In 1856 The New York Times reported that “in most European countries, however repugnant it may be to their sentiments, we find the Jews giving presents on Christmas,” while in New York, “they are released from this awkward predicament, for they can give their children presents at New-Year’s,” in keeping with a venerable local custom. In neither of these cases was substituting Chanukah considered an option; it was simply too insignificant.
After the Civil War, some Jewish newspapers reported a modest revival of interest in Chanukah. In general, though, as Jenna Weissman Joselit points out in The Wonders of America (1994), it remained a minor celebration for hard-core religious Jews and nothing at all for the rest. “The customary candles disappear more and more from Jewish homes,” a rabbi wrote in 1884. Four years earlier, a Jewish newspaper had pleaded with its readers to “try the effect of the Hanukkah lights. If just for the experiment, try it.”