Last night at sundown started the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. This is a minor holiday that was added to our holiday list after the Tanach was established. However, this holiday has a mighty, important story that we should all learn and know. To be honest, Hanukkah is my absolute favorite Jewish Holiday, with Rosh Hashanah being a very (almost tied to be honest) second. It has nothing to do with the gift part of it (which many people would assume), but with the story of the miracle of light. The miracle, the holding out of hope, the celebration of this one little miracle (as opposed to some of our other miracle celebrations). The entire holiday just gives me the warm fuzzies and makes me feel just…hopeful, grateful, and good.
So, at its basic level, Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights. It celebrates the rededication of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem.
In the 2nd Century Antiochus IV and the Seleucids ruled over the territory and attempted to force the Jews to assimilate. They took over the temple of Jerusalem, sacrificed pigs and welcomed prostitution within the walls, built an alter to Zeus on a holy spot of Hashem, and outlawed several Jewish laws and practices. The Maccabees, Jewish warriors, refused to assimilate. They not only revolted against the Seleucids and drove them out, but they also revolted against those Jews who had assimilated. They waged a Civil War within the Jews and fought hard to bring back the Jewish beliefs and practices. Now, when the war was done and they went to rebuild and rededicate the temple, there was only one bottle of oil for the menorah (a 7-branch menorah- different from the hanukkiah we light during Hanukkah that has 9 branches). A miracle upon miracles, that oil lasted for 8 days, giving the Jews time to make fresh new oil to continue lighting the menorah every day.
So, the story of Hanukkah is twofold, one is the miracle of the oil; the small pot of oil lasting for 8 days. The second is the fight against the assimilation of our people, the fight to keep our beliefs and traditions despite those who would destroy it and us. And for both of those reasons, I hold the holiday very close to my heart and it’s one of my favorites.
Ok, so now that we know the history and such, let’s talk about the…” Christmas-ization” of Hanukkah. This is something that I’m a bit…well I have complicated feelings over. I’ll start by saying that as a family we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, which most definitely plays a role in some of my opinions, but also as a child who experienced being “othered” for not celebrating Christmas/being Jewish, AND someone who is re defining what being “Jewish” and using my voice means/looks like, I feel like how I approach this is…notable.
First off, by now you should know/realize that Christmas and Hanukkah are not the same. At all. And I’m not even saying in a commercial/capitalistic sense, but also just in a basic story of each. Christmas is the story of the birth of Jesus, who would go on to become the savior. Hanukkah is the story of a revolt against those who would have us change our ways, change our beliefs, change who we are, who would crush us into the ground. So, not really the same story at its most basic level.
Second, these two holidays are not celebrated in the same manor. Hanukkah is celebrated over 8 nights, with fried foods, dreidel games, gelt and gift giving, and song and dance. When the Jews immigrated to the US they included gift giving as a way to offer something to Jewish children who go to school and hear about gifts/Santa (however some could argue that this is just an extended version of the tradition of gifting gelt that dates back to the early 1900’s). Hanukkah is also celebrated on a bit of a simpler “stage” than Christmas. At its basic-ness, we simply need a hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah- 9 candles instead of 7), some candles, and the prayers. Now, some families go beyond that, and set up larger displays in their homes, which is fine, but it is a far stretch from some of the Christmas decorations and idealizations of the holiday.
With that being said, I appreciate stores trying to be inclusive and offer a wide variety of products to cater to every holiday in the winter. But, as we previously come to understand, these holidays are not the same. They are different both in basic story and in how they are celebrated. So, with respect to capitalism and big stores attempts, I do not want a “Hanukkah Bush”, nor do I want a “Mencsh on a Bench”, or “Hanukkah Charlie”. I don’t want to go into a store and see an attempt to take the holiday of Hanukkah and give it a Christmas rip off product. I don’t think that is wrong to feel AND while I was going to say that I appreciate the stores trying to include a wider variety of holidays, I really actually don’t. Hanukkah is not Christmas and when we understand a bit more of what the story of Hanukkah is (beyond the festival of light and the miracle of the oil), this becomes a bit more upsetting. The idea that The Maccabees were fighting against the idea of assimilating and changing our core, who we are, and our belief system, makes it so much more important to see the reflection of that in what is offered. And while we can argue that some…adapting is necessary in our survival and that the Jewish people have become experts at adapting our beliefs and rituals to fit just about anywhere (hello that is something we are very good at), that doesn’t mean that we need to be marketed to in this way.
I should say- I think each family should handle holidays in ways that work with their family and their beliefs. I would never judge a family on how they want to celebrate or practice. What I would like to see is stores doing a bit more research and understanding in the holidays themselves, rather than just shilling whatever out to consumers (a good example being making “Hanukkah Stockings”). It doesn’t take a lot for a business to do just a bit of research.
I don’t know if I’ve worded my feelings above in a way that makes sense (and I did do a podcast on this, which may be a little cringeworthy, but there we are: HERE), but that’s my Hanukkah post for this year. I hope you’ve learned a little bit of the history of Hanukkah and my opinions on where we stand now.