Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?

Several years ago, a Jewish friend posed this question to me and some other friends, via email. Not having grown up Jewish, but as part of an interfaith couple, I’ve participated in a lot of discussions (not all pleasant) about this topic over the years. So I wrote him a really long answer.

Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?

What this question really asks us to consider is “the true meaning of Chanukah,” which is of course also a way to ask about the meaning of Judaism in our lives.  These are great things to talk about, and what better way to start the conversation this time of year than to do a compare/contrast between Chanukah and Christmas?

But to do justice to the question, we also have to be careful with our assumptions about “the true meaning of Christmas.”  Which isn’t an easy thing to get your arms around in contemporary America.  You need to think about “which” Christmas you’re comparing to:

  • the secular holiday?
  • the retail/economic/consumerist phenomenon it has become in America (and increasingly, around the globe)?
  • the pure religious celebration of (Christian) God’s greatest gift to mankind, a miracle?
  • the (most likely pagan in origin) traditions that have become integral to its celebration, involving trees, and the celebration of light and warmth and bounty?
  • the (not pagan, but pulled from many diverse cultural sources and mythologies) other traditions that have become integral to its celebration, involving family togetherness, giving and receiving gifts, St. Nicholas/Santa, special holiday music, holiday foods, holiday stories, holiday colours and clothing?

Depending on which of these Christmases we use as a comparison point, there are so many different answers to the question!

Which doesn’t even begin to get into the question of “which Chanukah?” since I’m also pretty sure that both Jewish leaders and Jewish communities over time have reinterpreted and re-directed the emphasis of this holiday in response to societal context and needs.

The discussions I’ve had in the past which are unpleasant are those in which I feel people oversimplify and reduce their definition of Christmas to its most public, media-driven, consumerist common denominator, e.g. “Christmas is about buying stuff and getting presents.”  The discussions which have been the most enlightening, and fun, are those in which the group has been able to look without defensiveness  at how much these two holidays do, in fact share… and where they differ, why/how?

I’ve perhaps tipped my hand, but for me, the two holidays share a great deal, and both are quite beautiful and meaningful.

There is celebration of light at the winter solstice — literally the time of year when nights are longest:  Chanukah candles, Christmas candles/lights and the Christian symbolism of Jesus as a light among mankind, the symbolism of the star of Bethlehem lighting the way to his birthplace.

There is celebration of warmth in the dead of winter — the special foods each holiday embraces are warm, both gather around candles or oil lamps (Chanukah) or in the case of Christmas, the fireplace or the tree (wood = source of heat).

There is a celebration of hope and a miracle – for Chanukah, the story of the oil that burned eight days and sustained the Maccabees; for Christmas, a miraculous birth, and the gift of God’s only son to save mankind.

There is a celebration of family – neither holiday explicitly demands it, and yet both implicitly require it…you cannot play a dreidel game alone, nor can you exchange gifts with yourself.  Songs sung, stories told and special foods prepared all make most sense when they are shared, not when they are experienced alone.  And it’s interesting that the mythology of both holidays feature family:  The Maccabeean Brothers, The Christian Mother Mary/Father Joseph/Baby Jesus.

And yes, there are gifts.  I know it’s popular, almost de rigueur, to bemoan the creep of consumerism into Chanukah, whose traditions and stories have historically not included gift-giving…that is, until Jews in America found themselves “competing with Christmas” and over time and with the happy cooperation of capitalism, increased their emphasis on gifts.

I do bemoan it (while at the same time I give in to it, let’s be honest…) for both Chanukah and for Christmas.   The traditions of Christmas, as I grew up understanding them, were not as much about getting gifts, but rather giving them, with care and thoughtfulness.  The religious symbolism goes back to God’s gift (of his only son); the diverse Christian cultural stories and myths had much to do with behaving (being good girls and boys) and giving as a way to emulate Jesus and/or Saints (in the Catholic tradition).

And to the extent that the giving of gifts reminds us to think of others before ourselves, to appreciate others and to show that appreciation, while the receiving of gifts reminds us to be grateful to and for the loved ones in our lives, I think there is still something beautiful and worthwhile in this.

So, I not only think there’s no turning back (i.e. bemoan as you might, Chanukah in America has been reconstructed to include gifts…) but I think there can be real value in accepting with wisdom and clarity the adoption of this part of the meaning of Christmas into our Chanukah.

The challenge then, for those who celebrate Chanukah (and for those who celebrate Christmas, but perhaps Christians are best-suited to tackle that one…), is how to find/keep our values in the giving and receiving of gifts — i.e. how do we make sure we’re celebrating appreciation, love, gratitude VERSUS materialism, consumerism, greed?  Can we choose “which Christmas” we’re competing with?  Accepted wisdom in the sports and business world is that competition makes you stronger — can Chanukah in America be strengthened by this new tradition, or are its other values simply weakened?

Finally, both holidays have powerful stories behind them – different stories, one military in nature, one almost fairytale – but both are, upon reflection, highly political stories and at times throughout history, I suspect also highly politicized.  It would be interesting to study them from this perspective:  what was the “spin” of the day behind each of these stories, how did the stories change with time, and what impact did they have?

Love, and Happy Holidays of every kind, to all of you —