Christmas for Jews.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 10 2009 10:09 AM

Christmas for Jews

How Hanukkah became a major holiday.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

The Hanukkah candles are burning brighter than ever before. Though traditionally considered a minor Jewish celebration, the holiday is now a commercial giant, a cultural staple, and an assertion of Jewish identity. In a 1998 article, reprinted below, David Greenberg traces the evolution of Hanukkah from the Old Testament to the Hallmark store nearest you.

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.

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?

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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.

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