Historical context gives a new perspective on Hannukkah

Anna Schwartz, Graphics and Layout Editor

Around this time of year, my family has a lot of traditions.  As a child of a New York Jew and an Australian Catholic, I have a diverse array of things to do in the winter holiday season.  We go shopping for stocking stuffers and gelt, make both Christmas dinner and latkes, and light our menorah next to our Christmas tree.  I’ve always thought that Hanukkah and Christmas were two equally important and exciting holidays, and that it had always been that way.

However, as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned a lot more about being Jewish, and subsequently, I’ve learned a lot about Hanukkah, the Jewish answer to Christmas.  I realised that in the vast assortment of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah doesn’t even ran in the top ten in terms of religious importance.  It’s not even mentioned in the Torah, the Jewish holy book.  There are far more important holidays in the Jewish calendar, but as a Jew in Minneapolis, I can safely say I have never gotten a day off school for something like Yom Kippur here.

So why is Hanukkah the most prominent Jewish holiday in America?  There are a few factors that made Hanukkah into the glittery blue-and-silver spectacle that it is today.  First, there was a real concern in mid-19th century America that many Jews were changing too quickly for the religion, and were slowly drifting from Jewish rituals. Judaism was losing to the more modern consumer culture of America.  Many rabbis saw Hanukkah as a fun and celebratory way to bring Jews back to their religion and culture, just like Christmas, which happened to occur around the same time.

Additionally, many Jewish leaders saw the celebration of Hanukkah as a way to make Judaism more accessible to Americans.  By emphasizing the ideas of freedom and emancipation in the Hanukkah story, and making it into a celebration like Christmas, Hanukkah became more American-friendly.

Over the years, Hanukkah has continued to transform itself into what it is today.  Hanukkah has become something of a caricature of Christmas, as consumer culture of America has turned it into something it isn’t.  As soon as Thanksgiving is over, Christmas decorations are rolled out into every major retailer across America.  Wreaths, trees, lights and more fly off the shelves until December 25th.  But Jewish kids don’t have Christmas trees with piles of presents, and they go out for Chinese food instead of having a Christmas dinner.  Giant retailers saw this opportunity and capitalized on the minor holiday that we mistakenly emphasized.  Hanukkah manifests itself in the shape of dreidel-shaped sugar cookies, Star of David cocktail napkins and “Hanukkah bushes.”  Hanukkah has become “the Jewish Christmas.”

It’s important that celebrations like Hanukkah have allowed Judaism to flourish into the 21st century, but at the same time, it’s important to take a step back during the holidays, and look at what we’re really celebrating.  With both Hanukkah and Christmas alike, it’s important to wonder whether we’re appreciating our history, or the holiday itself.