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The bloating of Chanukah

Note: this is a repost from last year, but it still applies!

It’s the second-to-last night of Chanukah, and I’m feeling a bit ambivalent. You see, Chanukah is a very unimportant holiday in the Jewish calendar, yet, for many American Jews, like me, it has become one of the most important celebrations of the year.

a Chanukah menorah

a Chanukah menorah

Why? Simply because of its proximity to Christmas. My guess is that it started getting more attention in the 1950s and 60s. Jewish families like mine began to move to suburbs in the general post-war prosperity. At the same time, they were assimilating: not attending synagogue as much, or attending Jewish schools, or feeling the need to live in primarily Jewish communities anymore.

In these new suburbs, Jews were the minority, surrounded by Christians celebrating Christmas. And at the same time, Christmas was undergoing its transformation from a primarily religious festival to the consumerist frenzy it is today.

So Jewish families like mine began to feel the pressure to compete. Their children were young and didn’t understand why their friends got so many presents at Christmas while they didn’t get any. Instead of the traditional simple gifts like an orange or some Chanukah gelt (chocolate money) or a dreidel (Chanukah top), Jewish parents increased their gift-giving. A Jewish child’s total haul over the eight days of Chanukah would often equal their Christian neighbors’ total on Christmas morning.

Chanukah gelt

Chanukah gelt

At the same time, with the progress of the civil rights movement and increasing awareness of our multi-cultural society, the Christian world around us began to notice we were there, and felt pressure to include us in their celebrations. While we had always been invited along to Christmas parties, now Chanukah was included in Christmas celebrations.

There was much talk about “the holiday season” and the “spirit of goodwill” and peace and light and other such clichés. Chanukah and Christmas in many ways became fused into one candlelit holiday. The typical Christmas concert, which used to be filled with Christmas carols, now became a “holiday concert” and included one or two Chanukah songs. When I went caroling with my Girl Scout troop in elementary school, we sang Chanukah songs as well as carols. I remember being the only Jewish kid in my class some years, and being given free rein to decorate one bulletin board in our classroom with Chanukah images, while the rest of the room was plastered with Christmas symbols.

As a child, of course, I didn’t realize the sort of tokenism that was being practiced in those classrooms. I thought Chanukah was as important as Christmas. I was happy to get presents, and didn’t see how much Chanukah had been co-opted into the Christmas season.

When I grew up and had children, I continued the same pattern: a gift for each child on each night of Chanukah, even here in Holland where families of all religions typically give gifts on Sinterklaas (December 5th). Christmas isn’t a big gift-giving event here, so I didn’t need to compete, and yet I still did it, based on my happy memories of receiving those gifts from my parents.

I know now, of course, how minor Chanukah is compared to Christmas. I realize that by celebrating it to this extent, I am devaluing other more important holidays which I don’t even take part in anymore. It’s a selfish decision: Chanukah is more fun. It takes much less effort than Rosh Hashanah, which would require a visit to a temple, and Yom Kippur, which would also require 24 hours of fasting.

I’m ambivalent about what I’ve taught my children in the process: they like Chanukah pretty much solely for the gifts they receive. They think it’s an important holiday, along with Passover, which is the only other Jewish festival that I consistently still celebrate. I’ve perpetuated the over-aggrandizement of a holiday that should pass relatively unnoticed. But at this point, with one grown child and one who’s 15, is there anything I can do about it?

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