The influence of Christmas on Hannukah and so much else

The influence of Christmas on Hannukah and so much else December 25, 2006

Came across some intriguing observations and historical analogies in the Jewish Virtual Library concerning Hannukah and, indirectly, the multi-cultural Borg that  is Christmas for many of us non-Christians in the American Melting Pot.

Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.

The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea, but allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated, adopting much of Hellenistic culture, including the language, customs, dress, etc., in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

It reminded me of a post (The Grinch: A Misunderstood Mujahid) from exactly a year ago wherein I laid out the arguments of my younger years against Muslims and other non-Christians yielding an inch to the infectious old Christmas Spirit.

My objection was cultural and political.  I saw it as a cultural Trojan Horse, a sneaky way for the Christian majority to impose its values on non-Christian minorities.  Its ubiquitousness and the lack of attention given to other religions’ holidays (except for the perfunctory nod to Hanukkah) offended my sense of multicultural equality.

Religious exchanges are great, but so long as they really are exchanges–it must be two-way street, not something imposed on minorities.  During my childhood in Boston,  nobody ever wished me "Eid mubarak" or gave a hoot about my religious background, so I resented having Christmas rammed down my throat (and really gave my Jewish friends grief over their "Hanukkah bushes") .  To my eyes, it was yet another way to promote assimilation and I was no fan of assimilation (and still am not, for that matter).

As a result,  I always found myself rooting for the Grinch during the TV special every year and came to view him, like Ebenezer Scrooge, as a tragic hero, a misunderstood mujahid for religious freedom and multicultural equality.

Times change, though.  While I’m sure there continue to be places in America where isolated Muslims  feel their sense of identity and autonomy to be similarly threatened by the forces of assimilation and secularization, Santa no longer casts such a menacing shadow, I think.  Today, we have Islamic mosques, dating services, butchers, clothing boutiques, supermarkets, conferences, book publishers, children’s cartoons, etc. etc. , so the holiday season isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game anymore.

Perhaps it’s time for me lift my age-old ban on giving Christmas presents.  And without solemnly declaring for the benefit of my family, as did my father when he broke down in 1980 and bought my Danish grandparents julegaver (Christmas presents) during a childhood visit to Denmark, that said gifts were  "in honor of Hazrat Isaa as a prophet".  (Corny, but true.  These are the sorts of ideological boundaries religious and cultural minorities must establish to survive as they make concessions to the majority culture.)

Still, while times change with some things plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.  I must draw the line on the shrub, however beloved it may be even to myself.   A platoon of Green Berets
couldn’t get a Christmas tree into my house.    As beautiful and inspiring a symbol as it is, it’s not part of my religious or cultural tradition.  For non-Christian communities, I’d argue the Tannenbaum remains a  gesture more betokening of beleagured capitulation to a steamrollering monoculture than freely given ecumenical spirit.  (Meanwhile, some far-right Christians decry any attempt by corporations to balance Christian and non-Christians sensibilities during the Holiday Season as a "War on Christmas".  In fact, even referring to the "Holiday Season" is oppressive and offensive in their eyes, even though Hannukah always falls in the vicinity of Christmas, which means that we’re always talking about more than one religion’s holidays.)

Looking over that previous post, I see that I also made the same quip about sheesha.  I appear to have a one-track mind.

I also just realized how much I miss playing backgammon with friends over mint tea and fakhfakhina ("mixed fruit") flavored sheesha in cheesy Middle Eastern-themed dives in DC.  Even if we had such establishments out here in Cracker Barrel country, such pastimes are difficult (and presumably illegal) with a baby in tow.

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