Image: My Jewish Learning
Let me start with this: I am a Jew (with a bar mitzvah and all). Now that I have put it on the record, I am safe from hate and people automatically jumping to the conclusion that I am anti-Semitic before they even reach the next paragraph (or even past the title). Of course, it is possible for a Jew to be anti-Semitic just any other self-loathing person, but then again, I am on the board of my congregation, the president of my congregation’s youth group, a new member of NFTY, and I just got back from the URJ Biennial in Boston last weekend. I think that just about sums it up.
While many people continue to compare Hanukkah and Christmas from organizations like Jews for Jesus (an extremely offensive pretense to convert Jews to Christianity without them even knowing it), Affinity Magazine, FOX News, Independent, The Religion News, it is ignorant to jump to the conclusion that they are alike just because they fall within the same month (typically). The Independent went as far as to say:
Hanukkah is often known as Jewish Christmas.
I am really only here to vent my frustrations with this common belief. It is not.
I am not one of those people who will get mad when somebody tells me “Merry Christmas,” because I assume that they probably just do not know I am Jewish (How would they with a name like “Romero?”). I take it just as any Christian would: a compliment. That is what it is meant to be after all. While I may correct them if I know them well enough, I would almost never get offended—unless it was intentional, knowing that I am Jewish, to show disdain over the fact that I just do not celebrate Christmas. On the other hand, I do get angry about people who go ballistic whenever they hear “Happy holidays,” because it is the same principle. It is just a compliment, so just take the compliment for crying out loud! Hats off to the person who said it for making an effort to be more inclusive as well!
What you need to understand about Hanukkah is that it is not even a holiday— it is a festival. That is right, and to add to it, Hanukkah is not even the most important of the festivals—Pesach is. You might be shocked, but it is true.
First, let’s go over the history behind Hanukkah.
During the period of the second Temple, Israel was controlled by the Greeks. The Greeks were cruel, robbed Jews of their property, and set up idols in Beit HaMikdash. They accepted the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, as a book of wisdom, but not as something holy that connects us to God. In turn, they made Torah learning illegal, and outlawed Mitzvot (good deeds) like Shabbat (the Sabbath), Rosh Chodesh (first day of every Jewish month), Brit Milah (baby-naming ceremony), and the holiness of Jewish marriage. The Maccabees, the ancient Jewish army, revolted against the Greeks to keep the Torah and Judaism alive and won.
When the Greeks had stormed their land, they had ruined everything in Beit HaMikdash—including the oil—and making it impure. Miraculously, the Maccabees found one last jar that had been overlooked, but it only had enough oil for one day. Again, God performed another miracle and made the oil last for eight whole days—not just one! That is the reason why the chanukiah (not a menorah) has eight candles on it and one shemash.
Not one of the things in the story of Hanukkah is ever mentioned in the Torah. The name, “Hanukkah,” is not even said once—proving its unimportance again. Instead, the story comes from the books of the First and Second Maccabees.
You will probably meet Jews that will tell you that I am wrong and that Hanukkah is “the Jewish Christmas,” but I really consider myself to be well-versed in my religion—educated enough to, as I mentioned earlier, be on the board of my congregation at age fifteen, be the president of my congregation’s youth group, and very active in my Jewish community. I must be doing something right. Yet again, you could just as quickly say that I don’t know what I am talking about and turn off your computer right now, but I trust you take what I say at face-value (or at least after checking my resources and doing the research yourself as I did).
When you think of Hanukkah, what else do you think (things that have not been mentioned yet)? Presents? Latkes?
When it comes to food, from my understanding of the Catholic tradition, people have big Thanksgiving-like feasts for dinner on Christmas. Hanukkah, against what you might believe, is a pretty forgetful time for most Jews (I cannot speak for everybody.). At least for my family, we eat dinner as usual, we go to work as usual, we go to school as usual, and much more. None of those things apply to Christmas (for most families), where people have big get-togethers with their extended family.
For Jews, that big get-together happens during the High Holidays. The High Holidays are the two most important holidays in Judaism (hence the name), Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (day of atonement). It is kind of funny that nobody talks about the most popular holidays of the religion.
As for presents, I can tell you that Jews do exchange small gifts for Hanukkah, but never to the extent of what is exchanged on Christmas. Jews will exchange smaller presents on the holidays, and the gift-giving is even somewhat outgrown once children get older. In fact, the entire origin of gift-giving is extremely modern.
It was always customary for Jews to exchange small gifts on Pesach, Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explained that gift-giving among American Jews shifted from Pesach to Hanukkah in the late nineteenth century. Christmas itself became enlarged in the late nineteenth century when it became a national holiday in America, and the Jewish custom just shifted in imitation of Christmas, as the Christian holiday’s consumerism grew.
Gifts and gift-giving are not the measures of a holiday, and just because Jews exchange small gifts on Hanukkah as Christians give gifts on Christmas, it does not mean that they are equivalent in terms of importance.
While it would make our lives so much easier to have every major religion’s biggest holidays at the same time, we cannot pretend that is the case at hand. Christmas is in December; Easter is in April; Ramadan is in May/June; Rosh Hashanah is in September/October; Yom Kippur is ten days after Rosh Hashanah; Vesak is in May; Diwali is in October; The Asian Lunar New Year is in February. If you couldn’t tell, the biggest holidays/festivals in most religions do not fall at the same time.
I say that we should never stop trying to be inclusive, and I love hearing people tell me “Happy holidays!” It shows me that people are making a conscious effort to be inclusive of everybody, and it is greatly appreciated. My goal is to just educate everybody so that they understand that Hanukkah is not “the Jewish Christmas,” not so they think that they should ignore Hanukkah.
For what it is worth, anything people say about Jews is almost unanimously bad, but the fact that people are changing their traditions to be more accepting towards any aspect of Judaism, even if not the one that we would like could be considered a win in the sense that it may help popularize the fact that Jews are just human beings like you and—well—you. Who knows? Maybe this can help end the anti-Semitism that sadly engulfed Europe during the Bubonic Plague, Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany during the Shoah, and what looks like could even be America in the near future.