How Did Hanukkah Get Lumped In with Christmas?

Rockin’ around the…errr…

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?
Jon: Kislev
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.

"I'm sure these top men had the best words."

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  • Jeff

    “Or maybe that’s just me”. I think it is not “just you”, there are a large number of folks who get very VERY wound up in the event of Christmas/Hanukkah, but not the spirit. As I’ve grown older (he says in in a wobbling tone, shaking his cane and creaking in the rocking chair), it has become, for me and my spouse at least, a day of relaxation, sitting in sweats, some feasting on food(s), watching TV (thank you Netflix) and mocking all those running insane from store to store and house to house. I don’t know if it is age, or the fact family is spread out (a minimum of a 3 to 20 hours drive, depending on where we go), or that I’m just a scrooge. Christmas events (Black Friday, last minute specials, tons of xmas cards, decorating the house to the point of it looking like the Moulin Rouge) is a game for the young…and arguably dumb. Maybe it’s just the day comes and we realize that Christmas or Hanukkah are not sale days and really, something more personal, even if you don’t believe. Of course, as a famous comedian said….that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

  • Alice

    It’s not just age. :) A number of years ago, my immediate family all got fed up with the Christmas craziness at the same time, so we scaled back that year, then stopped celebrating all together after that. People think it is weird, but it’s so worth it. I get tired just watching people running around frantically and spending money like crazy. It’s silly and largely pointless.

    I think a lot of people don’t really enjoy the Christmas craziness. They just do it because it’s what they have always done, and it’s what everyone around them is doing. Or they believe against their better judgement the lie advertisers tell that they will be blissfully happy if they have the unattainable “perfect Christmas.”

    I think it also comes down to a difference between extroverts and introverts.

  • KMR

    “I think it also comes down to a difference between extroverts and introverts.”

    That and also whether you sincerely enjoy what you consider pretty things. I’m visual. I like decorating my house. It makes me happy to look at lights, bright colors, etc. It also makes me happy to get out the day after Thanksgiving for just a little bit to enjoy the Christmas music, the decorations, and shop a bit. Then I do everything on-line and we keep it simple. No debt because we’ve saved and no stress paying anything off as a result. The worst thing about the season IMO is my extended family being up my ass and baking loads of cookies (both of which I love but only in small doses).

    I personally think the key to a great holiday season is to know yourself well enough to take stock of what truly brings you joy and to do just that.

  • Publilius

    Back in the 1970s when I was a teenager, my extended family had a meeting one Thanksgiving and decided that gifts would only be given to the children under 14. Family members over 14 would not exchange gifts. It worked out great and saved a lot of stress on everyone.
    Now that I’m almost sixty, my older relatives have died off, and my few cousins have grandchildren of their own. (I have no children.) They live far away, and I’m not really in contact with any of them. My girlfriend and I have a long-standing agreement to not buy gifts for each other, so I have no shopping to do for Christmas. We enjoy the holiday with a nice dinner and watching movies.
    The best gifts are the unexpected ones. Back in the 1980s, I found out that my parents (in their 90s) were saving their money to buy a microwave. So I went out and bought one for them, even though it was September.

  • allein

    My family stopped with Christmas gifts for the nieces and nephews at 18. The youngest of my generation is now 32, and then we didn’t start with the next generation, so we now only exchange gifts with immediate family. So that’s 3 people for me, which I try to limit to $100 each or less; plus a few friends but we only do small gifts, and then my best friend’s daughter who I spoil with books.

  • cr0sh

    It’s not just you.

    My wife and I stopped doing -all- holidays (and birthdays, and anniversaries – beyond a dinner out) about 15 years ago, when we were in our mid-20s. We just got fed up with the pointlessness of it all, the massive stress prior trying to do the shopping, and the massive stress after with the pile of debt involved.

    We stopped – and haven’t looked back; we have far less stress now, no debt, and are much happier. People think we are nuts, of course – or at least a bit weird.

    When we explain it to them, though, they tend to get a look of defeated jealously on their face; they know they are still trapped, that we are free, and they aren’t sure what to do. Then the denial kicks in, and they continue on – some, though – we have found – have followed our lead, and have let us know how much happier they too are. Very few, though…

  • allein

    I’m single but I would totally try to institute a no-gifts tradition if I ever get married. I’d rather just spend some quality time together and do something fun. Then again, I’m also the girl who would rather have a puppy than an engagement ring.

  • TychaBrahe

    Hanukkah is all about invention. Originally it was a military holiday, kind of like Armistice Day. Of course people were grateful to God for the victory, since in those days, God did everything.

    The story of the miracle of the oil was added in later.

  • randomfactor

    A Jewish friend of mine suspects the miracle was added in to defuse any problems in celebrating a military victory by an insurgent force in places where such ideas might not be popular with the local government.

  • Randay

    The late Christopher Hitchens debunked Hanukkah as he did with other religious holidays. “Bah, Hanukkah” in Slate.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2007/12/bah_hanukkah.html

    Xmas and hanukkah are both the same type of crap. They both promote ignorance over knowledge.

  • Bec

    I have a Dickensian Christmas every year! It must just be old curmudgeons who bemoan the death of traditional holidays. I do a fair bit of shopping but most is accomplished on ordinary trips, everyone helps out to create a feast and the day is spent eating, chatting, playing with new toys and relaxing with friends and family. I dont rush to Boxing Day sales ever and eat leftover turkey instead. It is only a commercial hype in the media and many people have low key holidays. Don’t buy into the marketing and believe that everyone is decorating their houses Martha Stewart style and having anxiety attacks over the gifts etc.

  • L.Long

    Jesus is such a small part of Xmas that why do the jews need to make Hanukkah anything special, they are no weirder than any one else. Just celebrate the holiday as secular as any other.

  • Greg G.

    Another question is “why did Christmas get lumped in with Christmas?” Pagans have celebrated that time of year since before Christianity. The Bible says Jesus was born while shepherds watched their flocks by night which eliminates December as the time frame.

    It seems to me that people were more willing to trade in their religions if they get to keep their holidays. Making up some Christian theme for the decorations seems to work. Christians offer apologetics that Jeremiah 10:1-4 is about how much whittling you do to the tree, while completely ignoring the major theme – “Don’t do as the pagans do!”

  • Bob Jase

    My question is, “Did it switch to Hanukkah because no one wanted a card saying “Chappy Chanukkah?”

  • Lurker111

    At least we haven’t seen (heard) contemporary Chanukah carols. Except I think there is one song about spending Chanukah in Santa Monica …

    Edit: And even that song refers to “Santa.” Sheesh.

  • allein

    Barenaked Ladies has a Chanukah song on their Christmas album.

  • smrnda

    How old is the gift-giving tradition in Xmas? Someone told me that our contemporary Xmas was more or less invented by department stores, with the film “Miracle on 34th Street” being little more than a commercial for Macy’s.

    Overall, I find most holidays rather nauseous because of the excess and the added stress people face trying to make them come out just right.