The gift-wrapping tables are out in the malls and the local bookstore, holiday cards clog mailboxes, decorations pop up on lawns, and oh look, there’s a menorah.
Feels like Christmas; looks like Hanukkah.
In all the flurry of the holiday season, Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday celebrating victory from persecution and the rededication of the sacred temple in Jerusalem, is often hyped as a sort of Jewish Christmas. Presents are bought, gifts are exchanged and get-togethers are held. Yet, from a religious standpoint, the status of the holiday that began Friday night and lasts eight days is nowhere near its standing in popular American culture.
“In many ways it’d be considered a minor holiday, and it’s only because it falls at this time of year that it gets a lot of attention,” said Rabbi Nachum Kosofsky of Congregation Shaarei Tefila in West Los Angeles. “I’d like to think if Purim was another Jewish holiday that came out in December, then everybody would know about Purim. But since it usually falls around March, most people don’t.”
The hyping of Hanukkah can be considered a largely American phenomenon, much like the commercialization of Christmas, said Ely Dahan, a marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business.
“You had a large Jewish immigrant population and they wanted to assimilate and they saw that Christmastime was a time of celebrations, parties and gift-giving,” Dahan said. “A part of the assimilation was to join the celebration, so to speak, and I think one thing led to another, and Hanukkah became the parallel holiday to Christmas.”
About 15 years ago, Dariush Bokhoor came to the United States from Iran and witnessed the holiday with a mixture of surprise and excitement. In Iran, he was used to celebrating the holiday in private, but here “they accept it as very important,” he said, pointing to all the politicians who mention Hanukkah, including the president.
“All the Jews -- we have to be proud,” said Bokhoor, who lives in Tarzana and runs a jewelry store in downtown Los Angeles. “I was really excited.”
This isn’t to say that Hanukkah is not an important religious holiday in its own right. After all, the historical if not biblical (Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible) implications are still significant.
Ironically, a key part of the story celebrates the Jews’ ability to resist assimilation, or Hellenizing, under the Syrian Greeks in the 2nd century BC and their fierce commitment to their faith and traditions in the face of temptation. Their steadfastness was countered by factions within the Jewish people who, urged on by the Greek king, pushed for greater assimilation and took control of Jerusalem.
“They wanted to become a part of the Greek world; it was very sexy at that time,” said Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am in West Los Angeles.
A civil war broke out among the Jews in Jerusalem and the Greeks took over the city, declared the Jewish religion null and void and turned the temple into a center for pagan worship. The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a rebel group led by Judah Maccabee over the Greeks.
The other part of the story tells of the miracle that took place when the Jews gathered to rededicate their Temple (Hanukkah means “dedication”). The Jews found only a small amount of olive oil, barely enough to light the menorah for a day. Instead, the oil lasted eight days, enough time for more olives to be pressed for oil. Jews today light menorahs in their homes for eight days, lighting one extra candle each night, in memory of this miracle.
In the pre-modern Jewish community, the holiday would be celebrated modestly, with an exchange of food, and poor families would give kids nuts or other small items, Rembaum said. But as Jews assimilated more into Christian society, a tradition of gift giving each night developed.
“The whole emphasis on the gift giving has been played up, and in some instances we face the same challenges Christians do about the over-materialization of what is essentially a religious moment,” Rembaum said. “We try not to overdo it when we give our kids gifts.”
For years, people have harped about the commercialization of Christmas, but many retailers often depend on December sales to bring in the majority of their yearly profits. Thus, to avoid alienating customers, retailers mention as many seasonal holidays in December as they can, Dahan said. Hence the invention of terms such as “Chrismukkah” and “Chrismukwanzaa.”
“If you’re a very religious person and believe Christmas and Hanukkah are primarily about the deeper spiritual meanings of things, for sure you’d say it’s way too commercial,” Dahan said. “But if you’re like most Americans, I’d say there’s a mixture of spirituality and shopping, and maybe shopping has overtaken spirituality.”
Most clergy, Christian and Jewish alike, agree that commercialization of holidays has eclipsed the religious aspect of their respective winter celebrations.
“It’s big business, and that’s what drives a lot of our culture in this country,” Rembaum said. “Hanukkah falls right in the middle of all that stuff, so it’s bound to attract attention from everybody. You can’t ignore that.
“The challenge of the society that surrounds us is to become part of that [Christmas] spirit,” Rembaum said. “It’s a very attractive, seductive spirit, and of course there’s a downside to that: all of the materialism. In a sense it’s a two-edged sword that pulls you into materialism and wanting to be like the majority culture.”
And so, as with most holidays, Hallmark has produced a dizzying array of Hanukkah cards -- 114 kinds this year. This wasn’t always the case. When Hanukkah cards were introduced in the early 1940s, only one or two types were offered, said Deidre Parkes, a spokeswoman for Hallmark.
Of course, there is a positive side to all of this publicity, Kosofsky said.
“It’s an opportunity for Jews looking for their own religion and the holidays,” Kosofsky said. “If they do find it through Hanukkah, and if they find it in the right way, it can awaken the Jewish spirit within them and that’s a good thing.”
However, all things being equal, the two religions aren’t always that different.
“I would venture to say that, from a religious point of view, most Jews who are apathetic Jews would be apathetic Christians as well,” Rembaum said, “and they see this as a time of joy, gifts, happiness and lights -- or depression, depending on where you are.”
Hanukkah, which often falls in December, is celebrated on a different date most years because it follows the Jewish lunar calendar. “I have to say, for all the families that I know, Hanukkah is actually a very happy Jewish holiday, even without all the gifts and gelt and stuff,” Dahan said. “The notion of just standing around the menorah, lighting the candles with the family. The tradition of having different people light candles and singing ‘Mao Tzur’ brings a lot of warmth.”