Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas

            When I was in my early twenties, my sister had a son.  My nephew was two or three years old when I visited them one year during what has come to be referred to as “The Holiday Season,” which is a euphemism for “The Season During Which the Dominant Religion (and Those Whose Families Once Affiliated With This Religion and Still Celebrate its Holidays) Try to Pretend That Having Christmas Trees in Public Buildings Does Not Violate the Separation of Church and State.”  My visit happened to coincide with a minor Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah.  It is a tradition at this time of year to give small gifts to children, so I brought one along.

            As is usual in the observance of Hanukkah, my sister was lighting her menorah every night for eight nights, adding one candle for each night.  This is done to celebrate the miracle in which God supposedly allowed a group of violent religious fundamentalists, known as the Maccabees, eight nights of light for the price of one night of oil.  She was also giving her son a gift each night, spreading out the gifts from all the relatives over the eight nights of the holiday.

            I was completely taken aback.  Partly this was because my sister has never been much of one for religion.  But partly it was because I had never before been in a house where gifts were given on all eight nights.  In our aunt’s house, where we lived for the second half of our childhood, gifts were all opened on the first night.  The family gathered in the den, surrounded by mounds of presents, and we each took turns opening gifts.  In twenty-eight minutes, there was wrapping paper everywhere and each of us had his or her gifts for the season.

            I assumed this was the way the holiday was celebrated in all families.  I figured that in the modern world, families were too busy to celebrate each and every night and that we were doing pretty darned well by at least remembering to light the candles every night.  So, when I saw my sister doing it the old-fashioned way, I was a bit awestruck.

            Over the years, my attitude towards this practice has evolved. We, too, celebrate each night.  There are no gifts the first night, as we give to charity instead for that one evening.  The rest of the nights, there are gifts, spreading out any from other relatives plus a few from us over the eight nights.  My friend, Caroline, once told me about a family that shares experiences each night: games, ice cream, whatnot.  I like that, too, but this really is the only time, other than their birthdays, that our children get new toys from their parents, and unlike the Maccabees, we are not zealots.

            To me now, the idea of opening a whole slew of gifts on the first night is a bit grotesque.  It smacks of consumerism rather than meaning.  It debases the participants because it really has nothing to do with the holiday and everything to do with getting new stuff, which is ugly.  But, more than that, it is about Christmas.

            To me, a Jewish household that has a single big night of gift-giving is aping Christianity.  This practice is akin to Jewish households that have Hanukkah Bushes.  I am not, of course, referring to mixed-faith households, in which each religion is recognized.  But ours is a fully Jewish household, and if we were to try to pretend Hanukkah is Christmas, it would feel a bit too uncomfortably like a certain famous Harriet Beecher Stowe character.

            I suspect that, as our kids get older, we will not celebrate every night together, just as we won’t have Shabbat dinner as a family every week.  But, I do hope we are wise enough to recognize that we are simply outgrowing a practice that is mostly for the kids and scale back, rather than giving a lot of gifts at once.  I hope we are all comfortable enough with our own heritage to not need to leech the trappings of someone else’s, a practice that treats Christmas and Hanukkah as though they are only about greed.

            Because, as everyone knows, the best part of Hanukkah is not the presents, the lights, the dreidels, or even the gold coin chocolates.  It goes without saying that it’s all about the doughnuts.

19 responses to “Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas

  1. Oh, yes, it IS all about the doughnuts!

    I had not heard about the single night of lavish Hanukkah gifts. I guess Christmas Consumerism corrupts it all; there’s such massive pressure to celebrate a “big December holiday” (with electronics!).

    I find I’m enjoying this smaller Christmas that necessity provided more than some others where we were more extravagant. It’s given me pause, in a good way.

    I love the idea of giving to charity on the first night that your family practices. What a lovely tradition.

  2. “Hannukah Harry”

    Need I say more? Granted it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on Santa Claus, it’s still a sign that Christmas has a strong influence.

    Hope you have a very Happy Hannukah!

  3. Happy Chanukah!
    A thoughtful perspective on celebration and family. A couple of points for discussion:

    The Macabees defeated and occupying Hellinistic army and king. The Talmud reminds us the king even tortured and killed a Jewess named Hannah and her seven boys for not worshipping Greek idols.

    Second point: the Bushes are Texas Methodists if I’m not mistaken. 😉

    May I invite you to read my satirical take on the battle to celebrate any holiday in the public square?


  4. What isn’t about donuts, Em? NOTHING.

    Happy Hanukkah, and thanks for sharing. I know next to nothing about this holiday or really any religious holidays (hippies for parents and all), and I’m always fascinated to learn about this stuff. Thanks, Em.

  5. How interesting – I don’t know any Jewish families and so it’s always very enlightening to hear about different customs. Hope you have wonderful celebrations with your family, in whatever form they take.

  6. You know, I too have been thinking about the whole “all the gifts on one night thing.” I’m Eastern Orthodox (though my parents are protestant) and we have a 40 day fast leading up to the Nativity of Christ. This means no christmas cookies, egg nog and all the stuff that usually goes along with the holiday season. But, starting on Christmas day, the entire week following is free from fasting (even the normal Wednesday and Friday ones) and Christmas is celebrated for an entire week.

    I like this, it takes one out from the normal run of things and shifts the focus of the holiday a little bit. I don’t have any kids yet, but when my wife and I do I plan on giving gifts each day of the week to avoid the whole secular idea of a single day of celebration and then its all over mentality.

    Thanks for the post and I hope you have a good Hannukah

  7. Though we celebrate Christmas, I feel the same way. The first year we spent Christmas with my husband’s family, I was horrified by how they set their presents in a pile beside each person and then…a frenzy ensued. It was, as you said, grotesque. No appreciation, no anticipation, nothing except a gluttony of ripping and tearing.

    Anyway…all the holidays have become commercially exploited. I think it’s up to us to take it back. We have scaled WAY back this year, and I think that’s a good thing. I think this recession just might bring people’s priorities back into proper focus. I hope so anyway.

  8. Yeah donuts!!

    The holidays hold unique challenges for all of us. It’s great that you’re taking a more traditioal approach with your children. Thought we celebrate Christmas, this year we’ve been trying hard to stress the important parts of the holiday with our children and take the focus off the gifts…

  9. Interesting thoughts. How sad, though, that the traditions are dying away (even in an all-Jewish household). Yes, it’s unfortunate that the consumerism of Christmas has influenced the culture, but it goes beyond Christmas, throughout the year. I’d say it’s a symptom of belief divorced from tradition, but that’s just me.
    Blessings to you and yours! Hope baby girl is better soon, so you can leave the house!

  10. A holiday is not a holiday without donuts.

  11. As a Christian, I have so appreciated your posts on Christmas and Hannukah. I hate the “Happy Holidays” phrase! My father-in-law always comments that his Israeli clients are the only ones who wish him a “Merry Christmas,” and, in turn, he recognizes their unique holy days (knowing that Hannukah is not high on the list). I would rather have no “holiday” decorations out than pretend that a Christmas tree downtown is a holiday tree.

    Though I hate how Christmas has become commercialized and secularized, I understand that it has because our nation is one with a dominant Christian tradition. I think it is a battle for anyone who wants to keep his/her traditions free from our very consumer-driven society.

    For us, the practice of Advent has helped to shape our celebration of Christmas, preparing our hearts and building a sense of expectation for the coming of Jesus. We also practice an old tradition of celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, giving each child a small gift or doing something as a family on each day, usually with one big gift on Christmas day. One of those gifts is always a donation to a charity.

    Thanks for sharing how your journey as you figure all of this out with your little ones.

  12. Great article! I really enjoyed hearing your point of view even though I am not Jewish. I have work in a Jewish community, so it is good to hear from your viewpoint. Blessings!

  13. Like twosquaremeals my family celebrates Christmas via Advent (the Church’s liturgical leading up to Christmas). It is an uphill battle that gets steeper every year to remember that we are celebrating Life and Love, rather than gifts. And for my family, its all about the cheese crispies. 🙂 (though doughnuts sound yummy right now!!)

  14. I am Christian and value Christmas for the traditions but I agree that having decorations in public buildings violates church and state. In front of my building at work we have a HUGE nativity scene and when I saw it all I could think is how offensive it must be to the thousands of people passing by it every day for whom the scene is not a miracle.
    I like Christmas and I almost rose to your challenge about writing why but I have not had the time. But what I do with Christmas is keep the few things I find very importand and/or lovely about it and eschew the rest. I also really try to use it as a time to, instead of stuffing my face with food and excess, to concentrate more on yoga and live more quietly. some days it is easier said than done but it’s what i try to do.

  15. The one present each night is also a response to Christmas. Traditionally there weren’t any presents at Hanukah, but “gelt,” or a small money gift, more like the Chinese New Year tradition. And that wasn’t every night either. (Who could afford it back in the day?) When I was young, families started giving gifts instead of gelt as it was less “crass.” (Context: stereotypes about Jews and money). Before I had kids, I saw both kinds of new conventions evolve among my friends as a way of making Hanukah tolerable for kids surrounded by Christmas, ie presents first night or a present every night. There are pros & cons either way. In some families where there is a present every night, I saw kids forgetting the candles in greed for the anticipated present. We tried both ways when we had our own kids and in the end have opted for first night with the modification that it isn’t a mound of presents as we spread them out more during the year. And ultimately it is a wholly quieter holiday. No tree, no lights, no santa, no hurly-burly. I definitely say yes to donuts, much better (for my taste) than latkes!

  16. Oh…and the macabees as zealots thing. I always have a hard time with that. They went around doing away with “Helenists.” ie Jews who felt comfortable with the surrounding culture. ie People like me. I leave out that part of the story with my kids. Just as I leave out the plagues on Passover in favour of an emphasis on Miriam’s well. It’s all in the midrashic tradition.

  17. I have always really appreciated your perspective on Christmas/Hanukkah. You’re thoughts have impacted me and how I see “the Holidays.” Thanks.

  18. What a wonderful post. Happy Hanukkah!!

  19. Hanukkah is such a difficult topic for me. You’ve put a lot of what I feel into words.

    My parents are both Jews, but didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays. Instead we had a Christmas tree, stockings, Santa, an Advent calendar.

    When they divorced and both married (completely non-religious) Christians, they took different paths. My mother went even more overboard with the Christmas stuff — three trees! a big caroling party! and, one memorable year, midnight Mass!

    My father made Christmas about my stepmother’s young children from her previous marriage and started introducing a small Hanukkah celebration — candles and chocolate gelt, but no gifts.

    And, of course, L was brought up in a household where his mother was technically Jewish, but completely rejected all the religious and cultural aspects, while his father (who lived in another state and who L rarely saw except at Christmas) was an atheist from a very religious Presbyterian background, who went all out on the cultural/commercial aspects of Christmas.

    We don’t celebrate Christmas in our house (though we usually go to my Christian stepbrother’s house for dinner) and we have a very minimal Hanukkah — candles and latkes and, when Gray was little, one present on the last night. But it’s one of those things that whatever I do seems wrong.

    Gosh, maybe I should write a post about it instead of monopolizing your comment section.