Christmas for Jews

The history behind current events.
Dec. 16 1998 3:30 AM

Christmas for Jews

How Hanukkah became a major holiday.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

The holiday season is upon us. Not the "Christmas season" but the "holiday season"—a euphemism for "Christmas with Hanukkah (and, perhaps, Kwanzaa) thrown in." If you place a tree in the town square, you need a menorah as well. We festoon offices with blue and silver Hanukkah decorations alongside Christmas trimmings, and on the Sesame Street Christmas special, Big Bird wishes Mr. Hooper a Happy Hanukkah. The only meaning of the phrase "Judeo-Christian," it seems, is the fusion of these two otherwise unrelated holidays into one big seasonal spree.

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The problem, as any rabbi will tell you, is that Hanukkah has traditionally been a minor Jewish festival. It commemorates the successful Israelite revolt in the second century B.C. against their Syrian oppressors, and their refusal to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture. Specifically, it celebrates the miracle in which, according to lore, a day's worth of oil fueled the candelabra of the Jews' rededicated temple for eight days. Until recently, this observance paled next to the High Holy Days, Passover, even Purim. So how did it become "the Jewish Christmas"? And is this good for the Jews?

First, Christmas had to become Christmas, which originally wasn't a big deal in America. The Puritans who settled Massachusetts made it a crime to celebrate the holiday (punishment: five shillings). Only with the arrival of German immigrants after the Civil War did it emerge as the major American feast. With the revolution in retailing--marked by the rise of department stores and advertising--celebrations focused on throwing parties, buying and giving gifts, and sending greeting cards (first sold in 1874, they became a million dollar business within a few years). The Coca-Cola Co. adopted as its logo a jolly bearded man in a red and white suit, and Santa bypassed Jesus as Christmas' main icon.

Enter the Jews. Around 1900, millions of eastern European Jews came to the United States, congregating in urban enclaves such as New York's Lower East Side. Most adopted American traditions, including the newly secularized Christmas. "Santa Claus visited the East Side last night," the New York Tribune noted on Christmas Day, 1904, "and hardly missed a tenement house." Jews installed Christmas trees in their homes and thought nothing of the carols their children sang in the public schools.

The second generation of American Jews challenged this embrace of a festival that, despite its secular trappings, was fundamentally Christian. But parents couldn't very well deprive their kids of gifts or seasonal merriment, and Hanukkah benefited from convenient timing. Instead of giving the traditional "gelt," or money, Jews celebrated with presents, so as not to fall short of their Christian neighbors. Prominent religious leaders, more secure with maintaining a Jewish identity in America, now urged schools to let Jews abstain from yuletide celebrations or to provide all-purpose holiday parties instead. Lighting the menorah proved a satisfying alternative to adorning a tree with colorful lights.

Zionism, which gathered converts in the years before World War II, also boosted Hanukkah's stock. The holiday's emphasis on self-reliance and military strength in the face of persecution dovetailed with the themes of nationalists seeking to establish a Jewish state. The warrior-hero Judah Maccabee, leader of an ancient revolt, morphed into a proto-Zionist pioneer. At first, Zionist organizations used the holiday as an excuse to prod individuals to donate coins to the cause. In later years they packed Madison Square Garden for Hanukkah fund-raising galas, featuring such keynoters as Albert Einstein and New York Gov. Herbert Lehman.

After World War II, as Jews moved with other Americans to suburbia, Hanukkah shored up its place as their No. 1 holiday. In the early '50s, in a famous Middletown-style study of a Chicago suburb referred to as "Lakeville," sociologist Marshall Sklare found that lighting the Hanukkah candles ranked as the most popular "mitzvah," above hosting a Passover Seder and observing the Sabbath. Sklare attributed the holiday's popularity to its easy accommodation to Christmas rituals as well as to its ability to be redefined for modern times. The Hanukkah lesson being taught, Sklare noted, was no longer reverence to God for performing a miracle but rather the triumph over religious intolerance--a perfect message for liberal America in the age of the civil rights movement.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

These Ozzie and Harriet Jews also modified their observances for the 1950s home. As one historian has written, a Jewish guidebook from the era included recipes for " 'Maccabean sandwiches' composed of either tuna fish or egg salad and shaped to resemble a bite-sized Maccabee warrior, or the 'Menorah fruit salad,' a composition of cream cheese and fruit that, when molded, resembled a menorah." By the late '50s, "Chanukah's accoutrements had grown to include paper decorations, greeting cards, napkins, wrapping paper, ribbons, chocolates, games and phonograph records." Like Gentiles, Jews extended gift-giving to adults; the Hadassah Newsletter pointed out that "Mah-jong sets make appreciated Chanukah gifts." Parents could now assure children that Hanukkah wasn't a poor man's Christmas but was, in fact, a "better" holiday because it meant presents for eight days straight.

Since then, Jews have become more integrated into American life, and Hanukkah has embedded itself in television, office parties, Hallmark stores, Barnes & Nobles, and other leading American cultural institutions. Except among the Orthodox, it has been thoroughly transformed into a major festival. Accordingly, religious leaders lament this development as another instance of the Jews' perilous assimilation--if not into a Christian society then into a secular, commercial one.

Yet the recent evolution of Hanukkah represents not a capitulation to the forces of Christmas but an assertion of Jewishness amid a multicultural society. Just as Kwanzaa, created in 1966, has returned many black Americans to their African heritage, so Hanukkah has helped tether Jews to their heritage and in some cases has brought them back to the fold. In a 1985 study, journalist Charles Silberman recounted how the writer Anne Roiphe, besieged with angry letters after she wrote an article about celebrating Christmas as a Jew, switched to observing Hanukkah and found it far more meaningful. Likewise, Silberman noted, more American Jews than ever preferred Hanukkah to Christmas. Three out of four lighted the menorah, an increase even over the 68 percent in Sklare's 1950s study. Today, the adherence to a modest Jewish ritual such as celebrating Hanukkah follows in the tradition of the ancient Israelites, who spurned the pressures to adopt Hellenism. Indeed, in acculturating to America while maintaining a Jewish identity, observers of Hanukkah may well be doing Judah Maccabee proud.

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