Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


jewish-arbor-day

(PHOTO: JEWISH MUSEUM LONDON)

Why Is Hanukkah So Closely Associated With Christmas?

• December 10, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: JEWISH MUSEUM LONDON)

It’s all about the Benjamins.

The first day of Hanukkah this year occurred on November 28, Thanksgiving Day. This won’t happen again for another 77,798 years.

This sort of thing was a puzzling juxtaposition to many American gentiles, tending as they do to associate Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the 2nd century B.C.E., with Christmas. As Bradley Hartsell put it in an article in the Times Herald:

Many people think of Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas,” but any Jewish person … will tell you that isn’t true. Hanukkah, of course, has nothing to do with Christmas, other than the 25th day of Kislev [the month on the Jewish calendar in which Hanukkah occurs] usually runs closer to Christmas than it does Thanksgiving.

But that’s a bit misleading. Most Jews around the world barely acknowledge Hanukkah. The American Hanukkah, with its decorations and gift exchanges and excess, is closely tied to Christmas. This is not exactly a revelation, but what’s interesting is that Hanukkah has become a big-deal commercial holiday in America for many of the same reasons that Christmas has, according to a recently-published book by Dianne Ashton, a religious studies professor at Rowan University. Basically, it’s a really good way to sell more stuff to consumers.

Ashton’s Hanukkah in America: A History explains that by the 19th century “the rising consumer economy and expansion of department stores embraced and promoted the new Christmas customs.” Prior to that time, Christmas celebrations, “where they occurred at all, tended toward ‘carnivalesque’ revelries often involving alcohol consumption and the firing of muskets in the streets, a general rowdiness usually decried by civic and religious elites,” Ashton writes. As the way we celebrate Christmas shifted over time, so too did our celebrations of Hanukkah. In short, they both became more commercial. A lot more commercial. Ashton writes that:

Further blurring the holiday boundaries, Jewish merchants—from the wealthy Strauss family that owned R.H. Macy’s to the many small shopkeepers such as Sam M. Lederer, who owned a modest dry-goods store—used Santa Claus images in their advertising each December. These customs turned Christmas into what one Reform rabbi in Philadelphia called a “universal Volkfest” with secular spirit. He thought that Jews should participate in those customs to “knit [themselves] with the rest of rejoicing humanity into a  bond of social brotherhood.” A reformer in St. Louis, Missouri, agreed. He suggested that Christmas was only an adaption of Hanukkah, because both are joyous, light-filled, winter rededication to religion; his own children enjoyed Christmas.

It seems, Ashton explains, that many Jews started to adopt the elements of Christmas—trees, shopping, Santa—that surrounded them, even when they were celebrating Hanukkah.

In Hanukkah in America, Ashton notes that poverty and scarcity were the experience of most Jews in Europe, but “abundance, security, and access to new places marked their Americanization. ‘Presents’ was among the first English words to appear in Yiddish newspapers. … By 1906 the Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) advertised Hanukkah gift objects” for sale in Jewish-owned stores. America itself was associated with prosperity and conspicuous consumption. It logically followed that Hanukkah should reflect this.

Different communities, of course, marked the holiday in different ways, with some reconciling local customs with their own memories of much humbler Eastern European celebrations. In New Orleans, for example, Jews decorated their front doors with “a menorah made of hominy grits.” Cincinnati Jews celebrated the holiday with oranges and ice cream. And the latkes of Hanukkah are most often made in Texas with cilantro and cayenne pepper.

It was, in fact, only Jews living in close, and reasonably harmoniously proximity with Christians that led to Hanukkah’s resemblance to and association with Christmas. And it’s all about commerce. It has little to do with spirituality, or even tolerance for Jewish people. In Europe and the Middle East, where the majority of the world’s Jews settled in the aftermath of the Diaspora, there were some people who celebrated Hanukkah, but Jews were largely legally and socially separate from those they lived with, and so there was no need for a special Jewish celebration or holiday. But in the United States, by the 19th century, many Jews had achieved some level of prosperity and integration. The first major time that Hanukkah was celebrated in a Christmas-like manner was probably in America during the 1800s.

And from there it really took off. Many department store owners realized, correctly, that a gift-based Hanukkah could be very good for business. Only two percent of Americans are Jewish, but many of them settled in cities, where large department stores are easy to find. This meant that they could be a great addition to the market during the Christmas shopping season, so much so that for many gentiles this industry was really their only knowledge of Judaism, at least until relatively recently.

It works both ways. Christmas’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has no real historical tradition whatsoever. A Jewish advertising copywriter, Robert L. May, invented the animal in 1939 while working for Montgomery Ward as a way to sell coloring books.

Many international Jews find this industry puzzling and see it as a contamination of Judaism. There’s even a movement among some Jewish groups to de-emphasize Hanukkah gift-giving. “‘The gift-giving makes the festival something that is tremendously anticipated, especially by children,’ said Rabbi Daniel Schiff of a Pittsburgh-area Reform synagogue several years ago,” according to an old article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “‘It’s the Christianization of the Jewish calendar, because our principal, focal time of year should be the new year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.'”

Hanukkah is a real Jewish holiday, of course, but it’s a minor holiday. Hanukkah doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. Celebrating it to great excess—with decorations and gifts of toys—would be sort of like if Christians started to celebrate Arbor Day, or the saint’s day of Fulbert of Chartres, which sometimes occurs on the same day, with decorations and presents.

Judaism, like Christianity, has two major celebrations. The spring event, Passover, which celebrates liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, occurs at roughly the same time as the Christian spring event, Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from death. But the second major Jewish holiday, the holiest day of the year, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which occurs during the end of September/beginning of October.

But Hanukkah is also a valuable market to emphasize. The idea of undermining the Hanukkah holiday in favor of Christmas (despite some vague popularity in evangelical Christian or politically conservative circles) as the American holiday season, is likely to go nowhere. Even the American celebration of Christmas is a little puzzling to Christians in other countries. Indeed, the cultural hegemony of the United States means that the American-style Hanukkah is now spreading around the world.

This year, British Jews celebrated the holiday with what was billed as Europe’s tallest menorah, in London.

Daniel Luzer

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.