Hanukkah's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Bah, humbug.
When I was growing up, my brother David always decorated the top of our Christmas tree. Once we had hung all the tinsel and candy canes, he would climb up a stepladder and place the star, a privilege I both resented and understood. After all, the ornament – a Star of David – was named after him.
At an embarrassingly late age, I figured out that the David of the star was not, technically speaking, any relation to me. The ornament was my parents’ little joke, a wink against the forces of assimilation that had a Jewish family hanging stockings and decorating a pine tree in our living room every December.
We lived in a town with hardly any Jews, and my parents didn’t want us to feel left out of the Christmas fun. In the 1980s, Hanukkah wasn’t much of a substitute. We celebrated it, too, but as the minor holiday it is, falling inconveniently in early December, when schools and workplaces are trying to get a lot done before everybody goes on Christmas vacation. My family’s nightly celebrations usually lasted about 15 minutes. Plenty of my classmates didn’t know the holiday existed. Today – thanks to cultural-sensitivity training, a 1989 Supreme Court
decision practically requiring that menorahs accompany Christmas trees in public places, and Adam Sandler – nearly everyone in America knows Hanukkah exists.
But as it’s become mainstream, it’s also come dangerously close to turning into Christmas with a different color scheme. Blue-and-white wrapping paper vies with the red and green for prime space at the front of every
I’m glad Jewish holidays aren’t routinely ignored anymore in this country – those of other minority faiths still get almost no recognition – but I wish inclusiveness didn’t mean a blurring of one event into the other. Hanukkah is a little holiday, nowhere near as significant to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity. It also ends this week. Nonetheless, I’m sure I’ll be wished a “Happy Hanukkah” right up until December 25th, since the greeting has become, in effect, “Merry Christmas” translated into “Jewish.” And every decorated pine tree in a public place will have a menorah near it long after Hanukkah’s eight nights have passed.
The problem is, the more we pretend the two holidays are interchangeable, the more the meaning drains out of both. Hanukkah, which commemorates an ancient military victory, is supposed to symbolize Jewish resistance to assimilation, but it is now often treated as Christmas in blue. And Christians see their symbols and traditions repackaged as a generic holiday. What we’re left with is the lowest common denominator: shopping.
This is my first December as a parent – ergo, a time for conversation with my other half (who is also Jewish) about what we will and won’t do, holiday-wise, with our son. Almost to my surprise, what I find myself gravitating toward is the Hanukkah I remember as a kid: a few presents, some candles, and a nice dinner. It isn’t an assertion of religious feeling so much as a desire for specificity, a means of giving definitive shape to the traditions we create as a family.
But as far as making a major philosophical and family decision, we’re off the hook –
for this year, at least. Our baby can’t recognize his own hands, much less wonder why
Santa isn’t coming to our house. In a few years, when he clamors for a Wii and his friends are all counting down to Christmas, we may have a hard time convincing him that we just don’t celebrate a great big holiday in December.
For now, though, we’ll enjoy a quiet celebration with grandparents and cousins. All the pine trees, and those pesky needles, will remain outside – and without a six-pointed star on top.
Alison Lobron is a writer in Arlington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.