It’s that happy, happy time of year when store windows call out “Happy Chanukah” in a blizzard of white, blue, silver, and gold right next to the “Merry Christmas” and “Season’s Greetings” banners, when menorahs are strung across boulevards after every third Santa-in-his-sleigh. And what could be wrong with that? After all, Chanukah is Jewish Christmas, isn’t it?
That’s what most Americans think, and more than a few American Jews. They think that not so much because Chanukah falls close to Christmas but because its proximity to Christmas in a nation that has made Christmas a month-long obsession has inflated Chanukah into Christmas’s Jewish cousin, the kosher icing on the merchandising cake. I operate enthusiastically in the dominant culture, but the way we celebrate Chanukah is such a massive cave-in that I think it’s time to put it in its proper place among Jewish observances.
Chanukah is a minor holiday that commemorates the victory in 165 b.c.e. of outnumbered Jewish forces over the army of the oppressive Greco-Syrian empire that ruled Palestine at that time. It’s important enough for Hallel, psalms of praise, to be recited at services during its eight days and for a passage summarizing the Jews’ victory and praising God’s role in it to be added to the prayer of thanks in the central section of the service, and it merits special Torah and haftarah readings as well. Its rituals are lovely, its games fun, its songs delightful, and its signature foods way too yummy.
But as one of my Journal colleagues observed last week, in no way does Chanukah’s prominence as a holiday begin to approach that of Christmas for Christians. Chanukah gets in line behind the High Holy Days; the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, which are mandated by Torah; and the other two observances associated with books of the Bible, Purim and Tisha b’Av. The only thing Christmas and Chanukah have in common is their establishment near the winter solstice.
Yet as far as most American Jews are concerned, Chanukah is a yearly focal point for Jewish identity. More American Jews light Chanukah candles than attend Yom Kippur services; only the Passover seder is a more popular Jewish observance. And that isn’t because the candles are pretty or the latkes are crisp or we’re proud of the Maccabees. Chanukah is a big hairy deal because it falls in December and we’re competing with Christmas. If the Jews had rededicated the Temple during the month of Tammuz instead of Kislev, there wouldn’t be a single Jewish kid asking for a Chanukah bush or bragging to Gentile friends, “Yeah, well, I get presents for eight days!”
While the giving of money at Chanukah has a long history, American Jews began Christmas-style gift-giving only after the practice of giving presents at Christmas took hold in this country, and that happened pretty late, not until after the large wave of immigration from Germany during the mid-19th century. But once Christmas became the merchants’ delight, there was no turning back. As Christmas emerged from homes and churches into the public arena and liberal American Jews wove themselves into mainstream American life, Jewish parents found it increasingly difficult to fight the holiday’s seductiveness. They felt they needed to show and still need to show their kids that our holidays are just as colorful, just as tuneful, just as tasty, just as much fun, and just as joyous as Christmas, and in this country, we show our joy by spending hard cash.
But we don’t need to give gifts at Chanukah to make Chanukah special. The story, the songs, the food, the lights are special enough. If we were to quit giving gifts at Chanukah, we’d no longer be telling our kids (and each other) that Chanukah is just as wonderful as Christmas. We’d be saying that Chanukah is wonderful, period, and there’s a world of difference between those two statements.
Now I certainly would be Scroogewitz, not to mention un-American, if I suggested that Jews do without a gift-giving holiday altogether. Personally, I’d vote for Rosh Hashanah, a much more important holiday, and joyous in its own right – not to mention the birthday of the world. Or if the first of the Days of Awe seems too solemn for giving presents, what about Sukkot, a highly decorative holiday that celebrates God’s gift of the fall harvest after we emerge from the relative somberness of Yom Kippur? Or Shavuot, when we mark the giving of the greatest gift the Jewish people ever received: the Torah? I offer these alternatives because, heck, I like giving and receiving presents as much as the next person. I just think Chanukah is the wrong time to do it.
My husband and I have this little tradition: on the eighth night of Chanukah, after we light all the candles and sing the blessings and put the chanukiah in the window, we step outside and look at it for a minute. It’s a beautiful sight. It doesn’t need tinsel.
Ellen Jaffe-Gill is a cantorial soloist and editor of “The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom: Thoughts From Prominent Jewish Women on Spirituality, Identity, Sisterhood, Family, and Faith” (Citadel Press).