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.