Family & Friends

Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas?

2129357492_0bda2271a2_z(1)Photo by Ben Alman via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

As the only Jewish family in our Trenton neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, my four siblings and I grew up singing Christmas carols in public school, when there was no issue of separation between church and state.  Because of my childhood fear of authority, I never dreamed of saying to my teachers, “Jews don’t sing Christmas carols.” Instead, either I sang very softly or mouthed the words, especially when the name “Jesus” was in the lyrics. I believe that my mother felt a similar kind of social pressure, putting up a tiny, imitation Christmas tree — against my father’s wishes — on our eight-legged table in the corner of  the living room, surrounded by Hanukkah gifts.

During these early years, Hanukkah was still celebrated as a minor holiday. By the time my youngest child was born in 1979, Hanukkah had become a major, not minor, celebration with much of the hype surrounding Christmas. After all, both holidays celebrate with candles and gifts. But the presents became more elaborate, lest little Jewish children suffer from a relatively new ailment called FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). While I do believe that Judaism and Christianity share many similarities, when Jews transform Hanukkah into a Jewish Christmas, I feel the real meaning of this holiday is often lost.

When the Greek-Syrian Empire forced Jews to give up their religious beliefs, the Jews were not pleased. Many resisted and died as martyrs. The story goes (and some historians/rabbis believe this is fiction, not fact) that the rebellion began in a village in which the Maccabee family lived, worked, and worshiped in their temple. They were forced to sacrifice a pig at their sacred altar to show obedience to the king. (Pigs are un-kosher animals and forbidden to eat and would never be sacrificed in a Jewish Temple.) An elderly Jewish priest named Mattathias Maccabee would not obey. He and his five sons, with son Judah as the leader after Mattathias died, started a rebellion that eventually led to victory, with the Jews reclaiming the temple.

Inside the reclaimed temple, the Maccabees found one small container of oil that was enough for only one night, but the oil lasted eight days and was considered a miracle. In fact, Hanukkah is also called the “Miracle of Lights.” Jews light one candle each night for eight nights in a special candelabrum called a menorah or a Chanukia. Unfortunately, there are few historical records of this holiday and it is not mentioned in the Bible. Because of this, there is some mystery around the holiday with differing opinions about what actually happened. But it makes a good story!

Even though the reason for the rebellion was based on religious issues and protecting the sanctity of the temple, for me the story is also about the freedom to pray according to one’s belief. It is this idea of freedom that, for me, Hanukkah feels more like the Fourth of July — a victory over the enemy.

As a result of my own somewhat secular “take” on Hanukkah, all of the hype this time of year is foreign to me. While I love the glitter and sparkle of Christmas trees and envy families who decorate them, I do not envy the stress of Christmas shopping, cooking, traveling, etc., which I believe take the joy from this holy day. And now that Black Friday actually starts on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, I am even more saddened that this American family holiday has been marred by Christmas hype. (Actually, this year Hanukkah came early, Dec. 6th and just ended on the 13th.)

When people who do not know I am Jewish say, “Happy Holidays,” I usually say the same back to them. To me, the most important aspect of this season is to focus on peace, hope, harmony, and joy, whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or the Winter Solstice. Perhaps the question we should be asking is: If Jesus were alive today, would it matter if he celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas? Or, would it be the best gift of all that he celebrated with a loving heart and prayer for peace.

+The Jewish calendar is lunar, so Jewish holidays fall on the exact same day in that calendar, but not in the English calendar, which is solar-based. Two years ago Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving and was renamed Thanksgivakah for that year.

Sources: Basic facts from Traditions by Sara Shendelman and Dr. Avram Davis, The Book Laboratory, Inc. , 1998 as well as Internet sources.

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  • Suz January 4, 2016 at 10:02 am

    This reflection is totally right-on! I’m not Jewish, but I have often thought about all of this. When growing up in So. California, the Jewish traditions weren’t talked about and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to know anything about them. I felt really ripped off personally, but more than that, I felt for my Jewish friends— that they had to observe their traditions in secret, somewhat, while tolerating the Christian holidays. The whole thing is just wrong. So glad you found a way to balance it all, Ellen Sue.

  • Basha December 21, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    This piece is very poignant and touched on many important feelings surrounding Christmas and Chanukah. However, equating Chanukah to the “Jewish Christmas” doesn’t honor the importance of the holiday. In fact, this essay could be titled “Reflection of Christmas as the Christian Chanukah.” Let’s not overlook the diversity on this earth by continuing to mold beliefs other than Christianity into words and traditions of that one single religion. Our strength is in our diversity, and our diversity has the power to bring peace.

  • Eileen Abrams December 19, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for the information and perspective!

  • Emilie C. Harting December 18, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I think you are right on target with those of us who celebrate Christmas and think it has become way too materialistic. I come from a family where making the gifts was important. I still love to bake breads and cookies and decorate a homemade gingerbread house with my grandchildren.

  • Carol Knopf December 18, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Great piece. Strikes the right balance and speaks for me.

  • Roz Warren December 18, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Terrific piece. I’m a secular Jew myself, and I feel much the way you do.