Hanukkah celebrations have changed dramatically − but same is true of Christmas

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. Articles and op-eds in newspapers
remind readers of that fact every year, lamenting that the Jewish
Festival of Lights has almost become an imitation of the Christian
holiday.

These pieces exist for a reason. Hanukkah is a minor festival in the
Jewish liturgical year, whose major holidays come in the fall and spring
– the High Holidays and Passover, respectively. Because of its proximity to Christmas, however, Hanukkah has been culturally elevated into a major celebration.

American shops and schools nod to diversity by putting up menorahs next to Christmas trees or including the dreidel song in the “holiday concert” alongside Santa, Rudolph or the Christ child. Even Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish movement, holds public menorah lightings that look remarkably like public Christmas tree lightings.

Store windows, doctors’ offices and college dining halls display Christmas trees and menorahs side by side, though the latter is a ritual object,
not merely a decoration. A menorah, or “hanukkiah,” is lit in a
specific way, on specific days, with accompanying prayers – more akin to
a Christian Advent wreath than to the holly decking the halls.

Much of my Jewish studies and gender research focuses on interfaith families,
for whom these issues can be especially tricky. I empathize with Jewish
Americans worried about Hanukkah growing too similar to Christmas – but
the history of both holidays is more complicated than these comparisons
let on.

Ancient revolt

There’s a deep irony, of course, in seeing Hanukkah as a prime
example of assimilation: The festival itself celebrates a victory
against assimilation.

In 168 B.C.E., Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the Seleucid Empire, sent his army to conquer Jerusalem. He outlawed Jewish holidays,
Shabbat observance and practices such as circumcision. His troops set
up altars to the Greek gods in the Jewish temple, dedicating it to Zeus.

The Maccabees, a Jewish resistance movement led by a priestly family,
opposed both Antiochus and Jews who assimilated to the conquering Greek
culture. Hanukkah celebrates the rebels’ victory over the Seleucid
army.

In the temple, the Jews kept an eternal flame burning – as synagogues do today.
When the Maccabees reclaimed the temple, however, there was enough oil
to last for only a day. Miraculously, the story says it lasted for a
week: enough time to bring in more oil.

Traditional holiday celebrations, therefore, include lighting the menorah each night for eight days and eating food cooked in oil. Spinning dreidel games are also traditional, as are songs like “Maoz Tzur.”

“Hanukkah bushes”
topped with a Star of David, extravagant presents, community menorah
lightings in the park, blue and white lights on houses and Hanukkah Advent calendars? Not traditional, if “traditional” means things that have happened for hundreds of years.

Carols and carousing

Assimilation to the United States’ Christian-majority culture has
played a role in Hanukkah’s modern transformation. That said, the story
of how Hanukkah came to have the commercial, kids-and-gifts focus that
it has in the U.S. today is a bit more complicated.

When people worry that Hanukkah is simply a Jewish adaptation to the
Christmas gift season, I think they are imagining that Christmas itself
has always been as most Americans today know it – with the presents, the
tree and the family togetherness. But, in fact, both contemporary
Christmas and contemporary Hanukkah grew up together in response to the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Industrial Revolution, both Europe and North America were
primarily agrarian societies. When the harvest was completed, the entire
Advent season took on an air of revelry – there was caroling in the
streets and a certain amount of drunken carousing. For the more wealthy,
it was a season of parties and balls. Sometimes, there would be class-based conflict – like vandalism or other crimes – between the wealthy partygoers and the working-class street parties.

The highlight of the season was New Year’s rather than Christmas.
Gifts, if any, were small and usually handmade. The wealthy gave
end-of-the-year bonuses to servants and tradespeople. All in all, the
season was as much about friends as family, and celebrated in public as
much or more than in private.

For a variety of reasons, social campaigners in the early 19th century looked to make Christmas into the domestic celebration of consumption
that we have today. The shift from seasonal farm work to
round-the-clock factory work made the evenings of carousing problematic,
for example – hungover workers are not good workers – and moving the
celebration to a single day solved that problem. Meanwhile, religious
voices tried to emphasize Christmas as a celebration of Christ in
Christian homes.

But more to the point, the Industrial Revolution created a huge
market of relatively affordable goods that needed a market. Christmas
provided an abundant market. And so did Hanukkah.

New needs, new traditions

Jews received the same advertisements for gifts and festive foods as
their Christian neighbors, and it was hard to resist the pull of the
celebratory season. However, the late American studies scholar Dianne Ashton’s book “Hanukkah in America: A History”
suggests that Hanukkah did not take its current form only because
American Jews were imitating Christmas in some sort of religious version
of keeping up with the Joneses.

Hanukkah, which is celebrated mostly in the home, gave Jewish women a
place to shine – much like a domestic Christmas gave such opportunities
to Christian women. It allowed Jews to focus on the family bonds, which
often felt fragile and precious in the shadow of immigration and relatives left behind.

And focusing on children,
such as by having them light the candles – a job traditionally done by
adult men – offered a way to engage the next generation in a time and
place where being Jewish felt like a choice.

In America, Jews were full citizens, free from the laws that had
previously kept their communities isolated in many parts of Europe. That
freedom also made it easier for each individual to choose how much to
engage with Jewish community, if at all. In America, you could leave
your Judaism behind without converting to Christianity – and many Jews did. Hanukkah was a fun way to build attachments to the holiday.

American Jews adapted Hanukkah to their own needs, emphasizing
aspects of the religion that made it work in this new environment. One
can see that as assimilation, sure, but it was also adaptation for
survival. Joining in the “holiday season” did mitigate the feeling of
being an outsider, and a minority, at the holidays. But it also allowed
for the creation of a new way of engaging Judaism in a new space and
time.