By Anne Isman
“So Hanukkah’s like the Jewish Christmas right?” This is a question I’ve heard countless times during the holiday season, when ornamented trees start sprouting up across the city with small, dimly lit menorahs trailing behind them. My answer to the question is simple: No. Hanukkah is, of course, not the “Jewish Christmas.” Yet as each holiday season passes, this seems to become an increasingly common misconception.
While Christmas is essentially a religious figure’s birthday, Hanukkah celebrates a candle that stayed alight for eight days. Yet throughout the 20th century, the two holidays became more and more similar due to their overlapping time of year. This led mainly North American Jewish families to replicate the gift-giving of their non-Jewish counterparts in their own households. But in comparison to other significant Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is relatively minor; the growing emphasis on gift-giving often makes it seem to be of equal stature to Christmas. For many, Hanukkah has developed into eight nights of materialism, much like the lauded opening of presents on Christmas morning. Still, Christmas continues to dominate the public sphere during the holiday season.
Whether it’s the Christmas music in department stores—really, almost anywhere with a speaker—or the green and red decorations thrown on every window display, one simply has to open one’s eyes anytime between late November and New Years to be reminded that, yes, it’s Christmas time. Christmas has become a far more commercialized and universally recognized holiday, often celebrated even by those who don’t identify with a particular religion. Yet when it comes to Hanukkah, most reformed Jews I know couldn’t tell you when the holiday even starts. It’s as though Christmas has been accepted as the predominant event, deserving all consumers’ attention. On multiple occasions, I’ve heard people wish that Christmas could just become an official American holiday.
Some find that the commercialization of Christmas has diminished its religious significance, rendering the holiday less about devotion and more of an encouragement to buy into the holiday shopping. In turn, holidays like Hanukkah that have retained more of their religious roots, despite increased consumerism, have become less desirable to celebrate. As the Christmas shopping frenzy continues to dominate the marketplace, Hanukkah has only become more forgotten, dismaying many observing Jews who suffer through the sounds of “Jingle Bell Rock” played one too many times. But while it’s too late this winter to reconsider our mindsets about the holiday season, next year presents another opportunity to stop thinking of Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas” but rather its own holiday that deserves more than a small Menorah placed behind a towering tree.