Lighting Hanukkah candles in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday – they are all behind us. The “holiday season,” the non-offensive, all-encompassing term used for the period in which Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year and Kwanza is celebrated, has begun.
And now the annual problem arises: How to properly explain Hanukkah to non-Jews.
Explaining Sukkot and Shavuot are child’s play compared to Hanukkah. Non-Jews have no frame of reference for these purely Jewish holidays and the traditions associated with them. No common link to hang on to. They are independent holidays with no popular parallel to non-Jewish holidays. Yes, many people use Christmas lights to brighten up their sukkah, but that explanation can be easily finessed – they’re pretty, they look like colorful regular lights only smaller, and it’s dark in the sukkah. They are made in China by pagans and have no Christmas role.
Because Hanukkah falls out at about the same time as Christmas, it is often dubbed the Jewish Christmas – and that’s where the problem sets in. To non-Jews, it makes perfect sense. In truth, it makes no sense. The Gregorian – aka secular – calendar aside, Hanukkah is as far from Christmas as Rosh Hashanah is from “Silvester,” the Gregorian New Year.
Hanukkah is about religious freedom.
It is about casting off the oppressive political regime of the Syrian Greeks and emerging triumphant. It is a time to retell the story of how a few fought against the many. It recalls internal struggles, even a civil war waged by the mityavnim (assimilationists) who embraced Syrian Greek culture and the “Hasidim,” those who stayed true to tradition. In fact, the word for assimilation during that period derived from the word “Yavan” which means to become “like a Greek.” During Hanukkah, the internal conflict between Jews was as significant as the external conflict with the Syrian Greeks.
Christmas is about Jesus and nothing more.
It is we Jews – not the non-Jews – who are to blame for blurring the boundaries between Hanukkah and Christmas. Passover is never referred to as the Jewish Easter and those two holidays, too, share the calendar. The fault is ours because on Hanukkah, we have chosen to borrow the Christmas tradition of gift giving and turn it into as integral a part of our tradition as lighting the menorah. Some social psychologists even have a name for it; they have dubbed it Christmas envy.
According to legend, the first Christmas gifts were bestowed upon Jesus by the Magi. The tradition of giving gifts to every child, naughty and nice, was popularized and commercialized during the 1800s. Jews were happy spinning their tops (dreidyl in Yiddish and sivivon in Hebrew), and they gave Hanukkah gelt (money, dmei Hanukkah), a tradition that appears to have emerged because Hanukkah was a time when parents gave money to their children to give to their teachers. Some families have the tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt on the fifth night of Hanukkah because that night will never fall on Shabbat.
Jews ate latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (fried donuts) to commemorate the miracle of the single oil flask found in the Temple when the Maccabees retook the holy site from the Syrian Greeks and rededicated it. That single flask of oil lasted eight days, so we light our candles for eight days.
None of this has anything to do with Christmas. And here’s the ironic twist. Gift giving began as a result of the Holocaust. Parents, in an attempt to bring joy into the lives of their family post-Holocaust, began to bring gifts into the Hanukkah tradition, and the tradition has stuck. This is also where the envy emerged as Jews watched Christian neighbors receive their gifts. Today, when asked to describe their Hanukkah traditions, non-religious Diaspora Jewry will dwell more on the gifts they gave than the gelt they received or the latkes they ate.
Hanukkah is not a major holiday. The battle is not found in the Gemara, there are only a sparse few lines in Tractate Shabbat discussing the miracle of the crucible of oil. Neither is the battle found in Jewish sources, it is found only in the Apocrypha, the extra-biblical books.
Hanukkah became a more significant holiday because of the Zionist movement. With the rise of Zionism, Hanukkah was transformed. It is an example of Jewish military heroism and the modern State of Israel joyfully and wholeheartedly embraced the holiday.
There are not many historical examples of Jews expressing military power and defeating world powers. Hanukkah teamed up with Masada, another historical event written out of Jewish history and then rediscovered and heralded by Zionists.
Hanukkah symbolizes Jewish freedom and independence; it is in many ways the antithesis of Christmas.
The writer is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.
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