NAVIGATING CHANUKAH AND CHRISTMAS AS A JEWISH FAMILY
The December holidays are officially upon us and that means it is once again time to figure out how to navigate both Chanukah and Christmas as a Jewish family. Over Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law asked me if I prefer it when Chanukah falls early or late in the Gregorian calendar. It’s a tough question. On the one hand, it is nice to have the holidays align, to feel part of the “holiday season” along with the rest of the country, something that doesn’t quite happen when Chanukah has ended by the first week in December. On the other hand, having the holidays aligned, particularly this year when the first night of Chanukah falls on Christmas Eve, is precisely the thing that so many Jews want to avoid.
Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas. And yet, there is absolutely no denying that Chanukah would not be what it is today if it weren’t for Christmas. Jews throughout time, including during the time when the Chanukah story took place, have borrowed, adapted, and contributed to the customs, practices, and rituals of the dominant culture in which they lived. As Shaye J.D. Cohen says of the Maccabean period,
“For most Jews, the ideal solution was to create a synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism… Sometimes it’s hard to determine whether a phenomenon that appears in both Judaism and other forms of Hellenistic culture is to be attributed to the influence of one upon the other or to parallel development. As a participant group in Hellenistic culture, the Jews gave and received.”
The same has been true throughout Jewish history, and it is certainly true today. The development of Chanukah practices in the United States can only be understood in relation to the development of Christmas practices. It is helpful to look at a brief historical overview of these developments in order to understand where we are today.
1850–1909: During this time period, many German Jewish immigrants saw Christmas as a secular holiday and a way to assimilate into American society. These Jews, including Reform rabbis and leaders, held Christmas parties in their homes, had Christmas trees, and gave small Christmas gifts (gifts during this time were homemade or inexpensive) as a way to signify that they were truly American. Many Jewish leaders also suggested that the minor holiday of Chanukah could be reframed so that American Jews could see themselves as modern Maccabees by adapting Judaism and saving it from extinction.
1910–1939: This time period saw the emergence of more expensive Christmas gifts and also the very first examples of Chanukah gifts. Manufacturers targeted both Christian and Jewish women as consumers whose primary responsible was childrearing. Jewish leaders embraced this, and encouraged women to create a Jewish home and to give children Jewish-themed gifts. Jewish leaders started to encourage Jews to celebrate Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, urging them to engage in parallel rituals that affirmed their identity as both American and Jewish.
1940–1969: Chanukah reached the consciousness of the dominant Christian American culture, elevating it as the most popular and well-known Jewish holiday in the United States. Jews moved to the suburbs alongside their Christian neighbors and the synagogue became the center of Jewish life. This era saw the introduction and explosion of synagogue gift shops as a venue through which Jewish women could buy items to create a Jewish home and to give as gifts for Chanukah. This time period also saw the explosion of gifts of greater extravagance, both for Christmas and for Chanukah.
1970-Early 2000s: Jews no longer had to struggle to elevate Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas. In fact, it became almost the opposite in that the two were seen as equal but different. American started to encourage people to refer to the time of year as “the holiday season,” causing the comparison between the two holidays to grow even deeper. This time period saw a significant increase in interfaith families, as well as many more Jews converting to Judaism, meaning that there were significant numbers of Jewish families who had non-Jewish family members who celebrated Christmas. As Jewish families started to figure out whether, and how to celebrate both, we saw the introduction of blended rituals and traditions, including “Chrismukkah” parties and trees with Star of David ornaments.
Today, it is increasingly common for a Jewish family to have non-Jewish family members, if not in their nuclear family, than at least in their extended family. Jewish families are, more than ever, seeking ways to navigate both holidays and asking questions about what message to send, both to Jewish children and also to non-Jewish family members who they love. So many are struggling themselves with the desire to maintain traditions of their childhood in a way that authentically aligns with their evolving religious identity as adults. Finding a balance is not easy and each family will have to determine what works best for them in the reality of their own particular situation.
As a Jewish community, the struggle to determine and define what Chanukah will look like is equally as complicated. Judaism has a rich tradition of borrowing, adapting, and contributing to the larger culture, and Chanukah may be the prime example of that today. We need to determine where it is appropriate to borrow and adapt and where it is appropriate to hold a firm line. Not all traditions should be adapted and blending traditions together has the potential of diminishing both. While there may not be much harm in an ugly Chanukah sweater, a Jewish Star tree topper attempts to combine two symbols that hold entirely different meanings.
A popular approach that many Jewish leaders (including me) ascribe to over these December holidays is to stand firm in one’s celebration of one’s own rituals, and at the same time, help one’s family members with different religious identities celebrate their holiday. In practice, I know that it isn’t always so simple, especially on a year when the dates of the holidays overlap. How many families will be lighting the menorah this year right next to a Christmas tree? My own Jewish children are part of a family with three non-Jewish grandparents and many more extended family members who celebrate Christmas and believe in Santa. As they get older, and start to understand more, the questions become more difficult to answer. We too, are figuring out what exactly to tell our daughter about Santa. And yet, at the end of the day, the message we are going to reinforce is a message that they already live and breathe every day of their life. This is a message of love… a love for Judaism and Jewish tradition… a love for America and American culture… and a love for people, regardless of religion.
*Much of the information in this post is taken from my rabbinic thesis. Click here for the full thesis with annotated bibliography.