“I want to see the tree! I want to see the tree, Mama!” my 4-year-old daughter says every time we come into my apartment building.
At other times in her young life, I might have stopped her from playing with the sparkling decorations and instead launched into “1,000 Reasons Why Hanukkah Is Better Than Christmas.”
I feel like comparing the two will leave one losing. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. If you compare them this way, the former will get decimated like our First and Second Temples.
I’ve told her how Hanukkah has eight days as opposed to one, and how on Hannukah you get eight days of presents and on Christmas you only get one. (On second thought, judging from what I see on TV — piles of presents beneath the tree — that’s probably not true.) No matter: If the tot argues how Christmas is nicer, I would distract her by saying, “Alexa, open Lily’s Hanukkah Gift list.” And by the time Alexa is up to “Elsa Castle, Elsa Doll, Elsa New Dress,” the discussion of which holiday is better — and my quest for sanity — is over.
This time, though, I’ve decided to stop waging my own personal war on Christmas. Perhaps in years when the two holidays are far apart — since Jewish holidays go by the lunar calendar, the first night of Hanukkah can start as early as Thanksgiving — I can make a convincing argument for our holiday’s superiority.
But this “Chrismukkah,” when the holidays overlap (Hanukkah goes from Sunday through the end of next week), I feel like comparing the two will leave one losing. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. If you compare them this way, the former will get decimated like our First and Second Temples.
Look, just like the small army of Maccabees fighting the overpowering Hellenist culture, I am all for Jews trying to prop up Hanukkah. Some of my favorite music has come out of this attempt to give the holiday equal footing, from Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” to the Maccabeats a capella “Candelight” takeoff of “Dynamite” (“I spin my latkes in the air sometimes, saying, ‘Heyo … spin the dreidl!’”) and my old favorite, “Chinese Food on Christmas”.
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I love that Spotify dropped a Hanukkah playlist, that Star Wars fans have a Medley, that Disney got its first Jewish princess in time for Hanukkah, and that Hallmark, however misguided, tried to include Hanukkah in its God-awful Christmas lineup.
But… but … it’s tiring, this equivocation.
And it’s false. Hanukkah is actually NOT considered a major Jewish holiday, the way Christmas is for Christians. It’s not even in the Old Testament. Passover, the little-known Shavuot (Pentacost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) are technically the three major holidays, the ones where Jews in ancient times had to trek all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is considered the most “important” holiday to American Jews, according to the Jewish Values Survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute. And let’s not forget Purim, “The Jewish Halloween.”
See? I’m doing it again. Explaining all of our Jewish holidays by the non-Jewish ones.
It’s one thing to explain a foreign tradition to others using a common language, but if you go further and actually judge a holiday by how many people celebrate it, or by how much airplay it gets in the mainstream media, or by who says the more-inclusive “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” — if you match up puny Hanukkah to the monthslong mega-hit of Christmas — you’re bound to fail.
There really is no comparison. Christmas is “huuuuge.” It’s got a federal holiday! Its own shrubbery! Its own icon! An Elf on the Shelf! (Mensch on a Bench just doesn’t do it, really.) Both holidays have been commercialized up the wazoo, but I don’t want to have to lie anymore and say Hanukkah is … bigger … better.
It’s just different.
Maybe this line of thought simply reflects my long and winding journey to find my place as a Jew in America. I grew up Modern Orthodox, in a Brooklyn neighborhood where most of the block displayed menorahs even as we watched all the Christmas specials on our paltry three-network televisions and knew we were missing out.
I spent my 20s in Israel, where Hanukkah and its traditional foods of jelly donuts and other oil-drenched treats overtake the country, and Jesus’ birthday is the minor holiday (except in a few small cities like Bethlehem). I finally experienced December as a time of year when I didn’t need to feel less than.
While living in Israel alleviated some of my religious insecurity, in my 30s, I moved as far as I could think from my roots. I landed in Venice Beach, California, where there was no snow, no winter wonderland and no feelings of competition over Christmas. I wanted nothing to do with religion or any holiday. I thought I was done with it all.
Now, in my fourth decade, back in New York with a husband and child, I realize that I want my daughter to know her Jewishness (albeit a less strict, lighter version of it than I was brought up with). At the same time, I realize that I don’t need to partake in these culture wars to provide that.
I’m too far embedded in Jewish tradition — traditions like Hanukkah — to have to overcompensate by artificially boosting its place in the winter holiday pantheon. And I’m too comfortable with my own community, as well as the diverse neighbors that surround me, to have any reason to feel inferior.
Hanukkah is fun! It’s family and friends! It’s food (albeit fried)! It’s presents! It’s light and miracles! It’s also about being part of a minority culture among a majority.
It’s not Christmas, but it’s ours.
So not only am I letting my daughter play with the ornaments on our building’s Christmas tree this year, I’ve done one better and gone over to our neighbors’ apartments to watch them put up their own tree. (Who knew they had to be watered?!) I will take her to see the lights at Rockefeller Center and shop at the holiday market.
And then we’ll come home and light our menorah, eat latkes and sit by the candlelight and sing.