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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • StaceyJW

    Yesterday, as I was walking around our cities “first Thursday” neighborhood art/crafts event, there were 5-6 men handing out religious tracts. They were screaming “This is why there is Xmas!!!” When I said “No, Xmas started as a pagan holiday, co-opted by Chrisitans”, others started yelling “Does your god hate gays” etc. too. It was funny.
    Why they think we want to hear their crap is beyond me- when I told them to go away, because they are annoying everyone, they started yelling at me about the 1st amendment. I love how they use the constitution when they want it, and ignore it when its not in their intererest.

    The whole war on xmas is one media creation that I can’t wait to see go away. Its annoying to hear people squawking about not being able to put up their religious symbols on public property. Churches own plenty of TAX FREE land, let them put it on THEIR SPACE. They want it on public land because they want the validation that the state supports their religion.

    StaceyJW

  • velkyn

    add to that Jon’s plaintive little carol, “Can I interest you in Hanukkah” from Colbert’s Christmas special. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJQYXghcNvo

    for a religion that has a “messiah” that said to abandon everything to follow him, Christians sure do love getting stuff for “his” birthday.

  • Polly

    This process seems to be working in reverse recently. Lately, Hanukkah is getting more attention and popularity. Than before, I mean, not more than Xmas. Adam Sandler’s song is becoming a “traditional” carol on the radio. They need more carols and for a “festival of lights”, 8 little flames ain’t gonna cut it. It’s the pageantry (pagan-tree?) that makes Xmas so seductive. How else could 1 day of presents blow the doors off 8?!? Unless, the kids are getting ONE gift piecemeal, in eighths? :)

    My father, who was raised…um…Jesuit? Catholic? and some other xian stuff, actually bought a plastic, electric menorah from Borders. I have no idea why. I actually did the purchasing at the counter. It was a little strange. Here I was, no longer a xian, and now I’m buying a menorah. I didn’t used to see hanukkah decorations, now they’re ubiquitous.

    …another casualty of the religious right’s incredibly ironic campaign to demand that retailers use their most sacred holiday to sell things.

    HAH! It’s the strangest thing. Xians always talk about not being part of the culture, but then they want the culture to embrace their every whim and tangent. The feeling of righteous indignation gets some people off; any cause will do.

  • Joffan

    “The Festival of Lights” – I think the Jews could easily spin a win on this one, since lights are the most visible manifestation of Christmas in residential areas. In shopping areas the pagans could probably claim it for all the greenery on display.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    My 7 year old son was telling me the other day that he wished we could celebrate Hanukah. I told him we can’t, that we’re not Jewish. Then I told him that we really do not celebrate Christmas either, because it is a religious holiday celebrated by Christians. We just use the occasion as an excuse to buy stuff.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    Good point. I was raised Jewish (roughly conservative, though we went to an orthodox synagogue), and we celebrated most of the holidays. Chanukah has always been a rabbinical holiday, not a scriptural one; it’s intended more to commemorate history than to be a religious, and the present-giving is indeed largely due to Christmas sort of bleeding over. However, the tradition itself is more varied than that of Xmas, where everyone gives presents around a tree. Some families give presents every night, others one or two, a few not at all.

    My dad’s attitude towards Sukkot, the harvest holiday that comes immediately after Yom Kippur, wasn’t religious OR commercial. He just regarded it as an opportunity to use his mad carpenting skillz to build a traditional hut in the back yard.

  • Javaman

    Dear son,
    Your mom and I are sitting here reading your post, as we eagerly do every day. It is the highlight of our day. I would like to comment on your line,

    Growing up, I had no exposure at all to Christianity.

    You were a voracious reader at a very early age. We used to read and talk together for hours every night about politics, philosophy, psychology and science before we would tuck you in. I did expose you to Roman Catholicism in a negative sense when I told you all of my childhood stories of being horribly physically and emotionally abused by nuns in elementary school, how I came to question God in my teenage years, and being an atheist but not knowing the term and the rational reasoning behind it. We marvel at how you have turned out, how much we have learned from you, and how much you have enriched our lives.

    P.S. Grandma sent your chocolate Chanukah gelt. We are holding it for you here. :)

  • anon

    Anyone notice a curious resemblance between Santa Claus and a Hassidic Rabbi? Is it possible that the merchandising of Christmas was actually invented by Creative Jewish merchants too?

    I’m kidding.

    Mostly.
    ;)

  • Christopher

    My 7 year old son was telling me the other day that he wished we could celebrate Hanukah. I told him we can’t, that we’re not Jewish. Then I told him that we really do not celebrate Christmas either, because it is a religious holiday celebrated by Christians. We just use the occasion as an excuse to buy stuff.

    For most Americans that’s all the holidays are anymore – I suggest that we rename them “days of commercialism” just to be honest about what they really are.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    It’s fun to see how the mid-winter festival of lights tradition has been passed down through different cultures. Hanukkah is something of a cognate of Christmas, and it’s fun because — like Christmas — it’s a celebration that’s more about (secular ) fun traditions than it is about religious observance.

  • ChristineS

    I don’t really have a lot to add to this, other than to express my happiness (and admittedly, a bit of envy) at the fact that your parents not only read your blog, but support you in what you do. You’re a lucky man!

  • lpetrich

    I’m reminded of a winter-solstice holiday that is almost hopelessly fake: Kwanzaa. That pseudo-African holiday was invented by a black nationalist in the 1960′s, and its inventor does not seem to have researched traditional African food crops very well. Ears of American corn??? Give me a break.

    And also of HumanLight, invented by members of the New Jersey Humanist Network back in 2001, so that those members could celebrate a winter-solstice holiday while not having to hide their identities.

  • Randy

    Nowhere in the Messianic Scriptures does it mention anything regarding a celebration, a festival or even commemorating anything to do with the day of His birth. It is only at His final Passover meal with His disciples that Jesus says anything about remembering Him: “And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this [celebrate the Passover] in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19). I guess the early Xians just couldn’t stand the pagan solstice celebrations so they simply stole them. It was a War on Yule!

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    “It’s a lesson in inclusiveness that the religion in its modern form could definitely stand to relearn.”

    Only just noticed this sentence. Judaism still exists today primarily because it is exclusive. Not only does it not actively seek converts, it deliberately makes it difficult for others to actually convert when they want to. The dietary laws and many other elements isolate Judaism, and this isolation has allowed it to survive the population explosion that would otherwise have subsumed it into a greater whole. Perhaps that occurrence would have been for the best, but perhaps not. Even the most assimilated Jews (and Germany had probably the most assimilated community) did not escape persecution.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I think there’s another reason Hanukkah has gotten more focus in the U.S. And that’s that, to some extent, holidays arise out of the rhythms of the weather in a particular region. In places like Europe and the U.S., the social need for a festival of lights and food and gift-giving during the darkest, coldest time of year is pretty strong.

    I mean, even in the Christian religious tradition, Christmas isn’t the most important holiday. Theologically speaking, Easter is. By far. But Easter gets relatively short shrift in U.S. culture. If Christmas/ Hanukkah hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them.

    the religious right’s incredibly ironic campaign to demand that retailers use their most sacred holiday to sell things.

    Seriously. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms… but you’re right. If anything, I’d think that hard-core religious people would push for Christmas to be less commercialized, not more. But then, the religious right isn’t really about theology — it’s about theocracy.

  • lpetrich

    We English speakers a nice good traditional name for this festival: Yule

    It’s the old Germanic name, and Scandinavians continue to use cognates of it.

    And the Roman name for it was Saturnalia, a time of great merriment.

  • Polly

    Judaism still exists today primarily because it is exclusive…The dietary laws and many other elements isolate Judaism, and this isolation has allowed it to survive the population explosion that would otherwise have subsumed it into a greater whole.

    So true. Holding on to the ethnic religion and customs has prevented many other peoples from assimilation into oblivion. e.g. Native Americans who maintain their traditions, the Hazara of Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Armenians in the Ottoman empire, The Chechens in the Russian empire, the Irish in the English empire, the Saami (AKA Lapps) in Scandinavia and Finnland.

    Those who didn’t have or hold to their own culture/religion were assimilated and disappeared. How many people speak Cornish, Ainu, or Votic? Not that many. And it’s only due to great effort that these languages are not already extinct.

  • http://erichaas.blogspot.com/ Eric Haas

    The mythological events that inspired it aren’t even in the Bible proper, but in the apocryphal books of Maccabees.

    Maccabees is not in Protestant versions of the Bible, but it is in Catholic versions.

  • Leum

    But Maccabees is not, in any case, in the Jewish Bible.

  • Sgeo

    Growing up Jewish, I remember when people in school would ask “Do you celebrate Christmas or Chanukkah?” This made no sense to me, as in my opinion, Chanukkah wasn’t a particularly important holiday, unlike, say, Pesach (Passover). I once answered “I celebrate Purim.”

  • David

    Eric Hass wrote: “Maccabees is not in Protestant versions of the Bible, but it is in Catholic versions.”

    No it is not in the Catholic bible. The Catholic bible, the Protestant Bible and the Eastern Orthodox bible are essentially identical and none include the Maccabees, which is a myth.

    Jennifer A. Burdo wrote: “Judaism still exists today primarily because it is exclusive. Not only does it not actively seek converts, it deliberately makes it difficult for others to actually convert when they want to. The dietary laws and many other elements isolate Judaism, and this isolation has allowed it to survive the population explosion that would otherwise have subsumed it into a greater whole.”

    Um no. Judaism grew through conversions. It was once very amendable to conversion including forced conversion. That is how it grew like heck in the time of Abraham, and again in the time of Moses, and again around the Roman Period.

    In terms of percentage of world population Judaism is declining and has been for hundreds of years and would have ben doing so even without the genocide of the 1940s.

    In terms of dietary laws, most classical historians believe these arose to anathematize others, make it acceptable to be displaced as unbelievers or taboo breakers. Monotheism generally does this (polytheism was more tolerant) and dietary laws are a specific mechanism. We know that Canaan and Palestine urban settled culture includes pig bones and evidence of shell fish eating as the primary proteins from thousands of years until the arrival of the Jews. What better way of justifying displacement than to claim that the indigenous people are breaking “gods laws.” Missionaries used to do this even concerning the sexual positions of natives.

  • Eliana

    David, the book of Maccabees is, in fact, in the Catholic and Orthodox bible, just not in the modern Jewish or Protestant. You can read it online at the website of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/index.shtml#1maccabees
    And just because it’s not considered part of the Jewish canon doesn’t mean that the events are considered mythological, just that it is not part of the bible (probably because it was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew).
    If you’re going to correct people, please get your facts right.


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