There is no shortage of exasperation about the hypercommercialism of Christmas. Secular or devout Christian, it’s not news that the Dickensian ideal of enjoying time with one’s family with some drinking and music and feating upon a big goose is gone, replaced with an overwhelming and mind-numbing consumeristic orgy of overspending, overeating, and over-stressing.
Or maybe that’s just me.
But one aspect of the holiday season that gets less attention is just how Hanukkah managed to get lumped in with the whole mess. Daniel Luzer at Pacific Standard, learning from research by Dianne Ashton in her book Hanukkah in America: A History, looks at how the melding of Hanukkah and Christmas took shape. It won’t surprise you to learn, it all came down to money, starting with retailers in the 19th century:
Many department store owners realized, correctly, that a gift-based Hanukkah could be very good for business. Only two percent of Americans are Jewish, but many of them settled in cities, where large department stores are easy to find. This meant that they could be a great addition to the market during the Christmas shopping season, so much so that for many gentiles this industry was really their only knowledge of Judaism, at least until relatively recently.
And so the cultural meme of Christmas-like gift-giving (itself spawned in large part by American corporations) at Hanukkah began to take shape. And according to Luzer, Jews themselves still find the whole thing puzzling:
Hanukkah is a real Jewish holiday, of course, but it’s a minor holiday. Hanukkah doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. Celebrating it to great excess—with decorations and gifts of toys—would be sort of like if Christians started to celebrate Arbor Day, or the saint’s day of Fulbert of Chartres, which sometimes occurs on the same day, with decorations and presents.
And let’s face it: Eight straight days of presents feels like a bit much. As Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart sing in “Can I Interest You In Hannukah?” on A Colbert Christmas:
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th
Stephen: Of December?
Stephen: When is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed 8 days of presents, which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.