December 2017

The True Meaning of Chrismukkah

Through the process of assimilation, Hanukkah ultimately took its place alongside Christmas in the pantheon of American consumerism.

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know” -Jewish composer Irving Berlin

In December 2007, New Atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens published the article “Bah, Hanukkah,” which accused celebrants of the Jewish holiday of participating in a ritual that emphasized Jewish tribal identity. Hitchens, a bloviating neoconservative who never let facts get in the way of his flimsy arguments, posited that the holiday represents an embrace of Jewish superiority and nationalism. His position is rooted in the fact that Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Jewish Maccabees in their rebellion against the Seleucid Empire. In his essay, Hitchens wrote of the victory, “when the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was retarded.”[1] For most knowledgeable observers, this seems like a grave burden to put on a minor religious holiday that receives little fanfare outside of the religiously plural United States, where it generally falls close to Christmas on the calendar—a fact that has caused it to be a vehicle for Jewish assimilation.

Hitchens clearly did not consult many owners of the Mensch on a Bench or watch the 2002 Adam Sandler Hanukkah “classic” Eight Crazy Nights when researching his screed against the Jewish contribution to the holiday season. If he had, he might have realized two important things. First, Hanukkah is far from being a uniquely Jewish holiday. Instead, it mimics Christmas to the point where the two become almost indistinguishable in their kitsch. Second, for many American Jews, Hanukkah is about as a much of a religious celebration as Christmas is to American Christians. In practice, it is the worship of consumption with a veneer of religiosity. While both celebrations have Biblical origins, their modern iterations are, at their core, celebrations of American capitalism and assimilation. Historian Jenna Weissman, the author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, argues that “instead of consumerism becoming Hanukkah’s undoing, it revitalized it.”[2] Through the process of assimilation, Hanukkah ultimately took its place alongside Christmas in the pantheon of American consumerism.

While both celebrations have Biblical origins, their modern iterations are, at their core, celebrations of American capitalism and assimilation.

Decades of assimilation that has worked to push non-Orthodox American Jews into mainstream culture has nearly erased the line between Christmas and Hanukkah. Recently, the Jewish magazine Forward ran an article called “The Santa Claus Dreidel: Peaceful Compromise or Assimilationist Nightmare?” which offered a brief take on a new Jewish must-have holiday item: a classic dreidel, but instead of Hebrew letters, it contains pictures of Santa. With American Jews assimilating at a level that has Israeli leaders re-focusing their Jewish diaspora outreach efforts and declaring the end of non-Orthodox American Judaism over the next couple of generations, the lines between Christmas and Hanukkah are becoming more blurred in recent years than ever before. The Santa Dreidel, as well as the Mensch on a Bench—the Jewish answer to the police state normalizing  Elf on the Shelf—shows the porous relationship between the Jewish Festival of Lights and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Santa Dreidel illustrates both decades of Jewish assimilation and the centrality of consumerism in American holiday. Courtesy Archie McPhee.

In her book Hanukkah in America: A History, historian Diane Ashton argues that the holiday came to prominence in the American Jewish community in the 1830s as an alternative to Christmas.[3] By 1889, the New York Times quoted one Dr. A.S. Issacs as saying “we Hebrews, disguise it as we may, cannot but recognize the genial influence of Christmastide.”[4] Rabbi Issacs was sermonizing at a time when a huge shift was occurring in the American Jewish community. Massive immigration from Eastern Europe was transforming the American Jewish community from a relatively small group dominated culturally and politically by German Jews to a burgeoning immigrant group centered around freshly arrived Eastern Europeans. These Eastern European Jews were hungry to make new lives for themselves in the United States after suffering oppression and religious violence in the Russian Empire.

The connections between the Jewish celebration and Christmas continued to be emphasized in the World War II era, especially as American Jews linked the Jewish struggle against the Romans to the Allied struggle against Nazism. A New York rabbi, Israel Newman, preached: “Judas Maccabee and his heroic brothers belong not only to the people of Israel, but to all man kind and it was no accident that led Winston Churchill to quote from the Book of Maccabees when he summoned the British army to action against the Nazi enemy.”[5] This idea of a Jewish fighter representing the struggles of all who were resisting Nazi oppression regardless of their religious beliefs fit in well with the tri-faith movement, which sought to link Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism together as an American identity (the “Judeo-Christian” tradition). The movement took hold during World War II and continued into the postwar period, during which Judaism and Jews became more acceptable to American society writ large.[6]

It was the postwar period that saw Hanukkah truly transformed.

It was the postwar period that saw Hanukkah truly transformed. Jews were moving into the suburbs and were concerned about the views of their non-Jewish neighbors. In 1969, the American Jewish Committee published the pamphlet Not Quite at Home: How an American Jewish Community Lives with itself and its Neighbors. The author, sociologist Marshall Skalore, writes, “without exception, Jews felt that they should be integrated into the larger society in at least some lesser degree. They considered mixed Jewish-gentile neighborhoods preferable to solidly Jewish ones, if only to provide children with the experience of living in a mixed society.”[7] This emphasis on mixed neighborhoods and living closely with non-Jews helped to further blur the lines between Jews and their neighbors and hastened American Jewish assimilation. The line between Christmas and Hanukkah proved to be so hazy that one rabbi, Edward Klein, gave a sermon to his congregation reminding them that they were two separate holidays and that, as Jews, they had an obligation to separate Hanukkah from Christmas.[8]

This desire for assimilation and emphasis on American religious plurality, combined with the fact that Hanukkah falls so closely to Christmas, has helped to make Hanukkah a prominent American cultural holiday. The push for Jewish assimilation worked so well that even elementary schools in areas with almost no Jewish students, such as my own in Bismarck, North Dakota, incorporate Hanukkah songs into their holiday pageants. Nothing says religious plurality quite like the sound of rural red state children who have never met a Jew before in their lives singing adorably off-key renditions of the Dreidel Song alongside Christmas staples such as Jewish composer Irving Berlin’s classic, “White Christmas.”

Advertisement for a hat combining the dreidel and Santa for those with “family or friends who enjoy celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah.” Courtesy GadgetsGo.

The link between assimilation and Hanukkah continues in the twenty-first century. Some secular Jews have moved past linking Jewish holidays to the general December holiday season in recent years by explicitly bringing symbols of Christmas to their own seasonal celebrations. Writing in Time magazine in 2013, one such secular Jew, Charlotte Atler, wrote that “for many people, Christmas is more about Santa than Jesus (at least in my secular book.) And while we’re all arguing about whether Santa is black or white, why not consider the possibility that he might be Jewish.” Atler’s distinctly postmodern take on the season is becoming more normalized, and the already fragile line between Christmas and Hanukkah is fast eroding in the twenty-first century.

The Americanization of Hanukkah represents a long-term trend of assimilation in which American Jews of Eastern European descent moved into the mainstream of white American society by imitating American styles and tendencies.

The transformation from a minor Biblical religious holiday to an American consumer tradition was a lengthy process. Much like the American Jewish push to end Jewish quotas at colleges and universities, the Americanization of Hanukkah represents a long-term trend of assimilation in which American Jews of Eastern European descent moved into the mainstream of white American society by imitating American styles and tendencies. Some of these, such as making Hanukkah more like Christmas, were harmless and served as a way for Jews to forge closer ties to their neighbors. Others, however, such as the acceptance of uniquely American anti-Black racism and the rejection of Affirmative Action programs in the 1970s, caused irreparable damage to other groups that hoped to breach rigid social hierarchies and involved a level of exploitation that still needs to be acknowledged and understood.

The marking of the Hanukkah celebration with a shallow, materialist emphasis on gift-giving, with Hanukkah Harry replacing Santa, is a uniquely American affair that allows Jews who choose to partake an opportunity to celebrate an important seasonal ritual and to broadcast and maintain their Jewish identity. The changing of how Hanukkah is celebrated from a unique, if minor, holiday in Eastern Europe, to a celebration of religious plurality with efforts to keep clear boundaries in the twentieth century, and finally, to a postmodern embrace of a general holiday spirit in December, represents the many different steps in Jewish assimilation in the United States. From a recently arrived immigrant group hoping to make its mark in the United States to a quickly-vanishing, largely white religious group, Hanukkah, and American Jews themselves, have become an integral and assimilated part of American society.

Now, you will excuse me, I have to go light the Menorah candles I bought from Target and finish ordering Christmas presents for my secular, gentile in-laws.

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[1] Christopher Hitchens “Ba, Hanukkah” Slate December 3, 2007

[2] “How Hanukkah Became an American Success Story” Los Angeles Times December 16, 1995.

[3] See Diane Ashton Hanukkah in America: A History New York: NYU Press 2013.

[4] A.S. Issacs quoted in The New York Times December 29, 1889.

[5]“ Spurs to Tolerance is Seen by Rabbis” The New York Times December 26, 1943.

[6] See Kevin M. Schultz Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to its Protestant Promise New York: Oxford University Press 2011.

[7] Marshall Saklore, Joseph Greenblum, and Bejamin Ringer Not Quite at Home: How an American Jewish Community Lives with Itself and its Neighbors American Jewish Committee 1969. 83.

[8] “2 Holidays Apart Urged Upon Jews” The New York Times December 18, 1960.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

1 comment on “The True Meaning of Chrismukkah

  1. Very interesting, I never knew Hannukah and Christmas were so closely entwined.


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