Why Hanukkah?

For the sake of the holidays, here’s a bit of nostalgia:

My parents came from two different religious traditions – Roman Catholicism on my father’s side, liberal Judaism on my mother’s side – although neither of them were practicing. Growing up, I had no exposure at all to Christianity, and the extent of my exposure to Judaism was that we lit candles on a menorah and got presents and chocolate coins from my grandmother at Hanukkah. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me the religious origins of the holiday: it was just there, like Christmas, something we celebrated purely for the sake of tradition. I don’t consider myself Jewish any more than I consider myself Christian, but looking back, I still regard it with fondness. (Eight days of getting presents will do that to a young boy!)

Years later, it’s easier for me to take a broader perspective. As far as the Jewish calendar goes, Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor religious festival. The mythological events that inspired it aren’t even in the Bible proper, but in the apocryphal books of Maccabees. I had always assumed that the only reason it’s given such prominence by retailers is that its date falls conveniently close to Christmas, making it easy to advertise to two demographic groups at the same time. In this respect, Hanukkah is just collateral damage in the “war on Christmas”, another casualty of the religious right’s incredibly ironic campaign to demand that retailers use their most sacred holiday to sell things.

This is true as far as it goes. But until recently, I didn’t know the whole story: Hanukkah’s prominence as a celebration of commercialism was an idea that was invented by Jews, who were trying to raise it up as an alternative to Christmas.

Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History gives a longer version of the story:

In one of the few acts of the early Reforms that created rather than negated ritual, Rabbi Michael Silberstein in 1871 helped lead the progressive Jews to take up the festival of Hanukkah, which became the great holiday of secular Judaism…

His reason for championing the holiday was to stop Jews from celebrating Christmas: “It is a known fact that unfortunately a misuse has arisen in Jewish families, namely, the observance of the Christmas holy day as a day of Jewish sanctity.” He told his fellow rabbis to make Hanukkah popular not only in synagogue but “also in the schools,” and to “point out to the parents that the festival of Hanukkah should be turned into a family celebration.” (p.379)

What a picture this paints: Christmas was proving too alluring for secularized Jewish families, so the rabbis of the Reform movement played up Hanukkah with the intent of creating a holiday of their own to compete! (Whether they succeeded is debatable. As Jon Stewart once said, “To those with kids, let me tell you – Christmas blows the doors off Hanukkah.”)

This is nothing new, of course. The Christians did the same thing originally: scheduling the birth of their savior to compete with pagan solstice celebrations. And they’ve had more success with this strategy than Judaism has – perhaps because Christianity permitted the best parts of the popular pagan festivals to become part of its holiday. It’s a lesson in inclusiveness that the religion in its modern form could definitely stand to relearn.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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