Hanukkah and Christmas overlap this winter, but it is more than timing that has influenced the co-mingling of traditions.
Hanukkah and Christmas are both religious based, winter holidays but that doesn’t mean that Hanukkah is a Jewish Christmas, or Christmas a Christian Hanukkah. The origins of both are as unique as the religions that observe them. However, cultural norms, commercialization and increased secularism push them closer together than ever before.
Christmas is acknowledged as the observation of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the claimed son of God and spiritual leader whose teachings are the foundation of modern Christianity.
Hanukkah’s origins predate Christmas by about 200 years when the Jewish people triumphed over religious persecution and reclaimed their temple. At the rededication of the temple, it was discovered that they only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night. The candle miraculously remained lit for the next eight days.
Hanukkah is observed starting on the 25th day of the Jewish Month of Kislev, but this means that its date is variable in the Gregorian calendar, and it can fall anywhere from the end of November to late December. This year, it will be observed from December 18th through December 26th. Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, compared to other important holy days such as Passover, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, but its proximity to Christmas and holiday breaks has elevated its status. Hanukkah is one of the best-known Jewish holidays by non-Jewish people, after its common inclusion to pan-religious winter celebrations. Dreidels and gelt, traditional Hanukkah chocolates, line store shelves next to candy canes. Christmas has also been a federal holiday since 1870 and some Jewish observers of Hanukkah have expanded their celebrations in the space afforded by work and school vacations, which do not accommodate for other Jewish holidays. Christmas is both competitor and ally, expanding the breath of the holiday.
Christmas owes its revered place in American culture to its Christian founders, but the reinvention of Christmas as a holiday focused around family time and charity dates back only to the early 1800s. Alongside long church services, the holiday gentled to include large meals, and gift giving including charity. The holiday was widening its cultural purview and has been ever since. Today, more non-Christians celebrate Christmas than ever before, and according to the Pew Research Center, a declining number of Americans observe Christmas as a religious Holiday.
If gelt is loved by all and Christmas is no longer solely about Christ, it is easier to see the similarities through the differences: both are celebrations of light, focus on quality family time together, feasting, and a tradition of gift giving.
Festivals of Light
Both holidays occur in December and in the Northern hemisphere this means the shortest and coldest days of the year. Both holidays address this with a focus on light and warmth. Christmas revelers string their trees and plug in electrical lights. While a safer alternative, these plug-ins are a nod to the tradition of lighting candles. Christmas candles, whether electric or wax, may symbolize the light of the star of Bethlehem that led the Magi to the manger where Christ was born. It could also represent the symbolic “light” that Christ brought to the world. The ubiquitous candles in windows, is a practice that at least dates back to colonial times to signify to passers by a warm and sheltered place to stop. For many families, Christmas decorations emerge, sometimes right after Thanksgiving and stay lit for the entirety of December. This electrification of Christmas dates back to the largest public tree lighting, a 60 ft. balsam fir with over 2, 500 bulbs on the white house lawn in the early nineteenth century, sponsored by the electricity lobby.
Hanukkah’s celebration, for the most part, remains less distorted by commercial industry. The lighting of the Menorah is the core of the holiday, in both historical significance and the symbolism. So, for most celebrating Hanukkah, using real candles is still the general practice. The candles are lit each night of the consecutive celebration, burning for at least 30 minutes. Although Hanukkah has not been totally immune from the ease and safety of electric lighting and blue lights can be seen in windows spreading the message and miracle. Also, the tradition of the Hanukkah tree has proliferated due to interfaith couples and its introduction 40 years ago by Jewish Russian immigrants for whom the tree endured in religious persecution as a general symbol of winter.
Family and Feasting
Both holidays focus on time spent with family. The lighting of the Menorah brings families together during the 8-day celebration sometimes observed on busy work nights reminding them about perseverance through hardship and darkness. Many observers invite friends and family to observe the holiday, play games, and share food. Uniquely, because the holiday is a minor one, instead of going to Temple, most observe the holiday at home, reinforcing its inward facing symbolism and its family focus.
Similarly at Christmas, the time off work allows families and friends to observe the holiday at home. Most businesses are closed and the holiday has a celebratory but self-reflective tenor. Big meals for both Hanukkah and Christmas showcase symbolic and cultural food unique to each family.
Holidays ultimately are imbued with meaning by their observers, and the traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah have changed over the years to adapt to technological and cultural change. While many in the religious community are fighting to keep the spiritual significance in the forefront, an increasing number of observers of both Christmas and Hanukkah choose to forgo the services and the prayers and instead focus on food, family and gift giving. In an increasingly secular world, it is possible that the differences between the two holidays might seem less significant in the future.