Recently a friend said to me that Hanukkah was a made-up holiday so Jews could get presents like Christians do at Christmastime. I explained that wasn’t true, Hanukkah was for real, and I quickly told him the story of how over 2000 years ago the Jewish Temple was overtaken by Greek-Syrian oppressors and Judaism was outlawed. Jews rebelled and the temple was liberated. To celebrate the event a menorah was lit, however there was only enough oil to burn for one day. The miracle occurred when the candle burned for eight days, allowing time to replenish the kosher oil supply. To commemorate this miracle, the festival of lights and eight days of celebration was declared. So no, I said to my friend, Santa envy and consumerism did not create Hanukkah, and if it had, it would be one of the greatest marketing failures of all time.
My forays to Michaels, Target and Pier One Imports, on the search for Hanukkah decorations, came up with a smattering of blue and white ribbons, plastic dreidels, Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) that looked like they were left over from last year, and one Mensch on a Bench doll starring Rabbi Moshe. In contrast, the overabundance of Christmas decorations would have covered the North Pole like snow.
Am I a jealous Jew, upset because Santa steals Moshe’s spotlight? Absolutely not. Presently, in my home, a beautiful bronze Menorah sits ready to be lit. Nearby, in honor of the interfaith relationship I am in, Christmas stockings hang. Underneath this holiday hobble are more presents. Some wrapped in Hanukkah paper (blue and white and stamped with dreidels, the only wrapping I could find), some in Christmas paper (reds, greens, and whites embedded with Santas, reindeer and snowflakes, one of many I had to choose from). I am excited for December twenty-fourth: the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, the overlap having only occurred four other times in the last century.
As a child growing up on Long Island, every Hanukkah I looked forward to hearing the story of the rededication of the Jewish temple and the light that burned for eight days. I enjoyed making potato latkes with my mother and sneaking a few as they dried on paper towels. I reveled in the gathering of my family. When my sister, brother and I were small we received eight presents, one for each night of the holiday, but I don’t recall that lasting beyond my tenth year.
Likewise, while growing up on Long Island, at Christmastime my family shopped for a tree, balanced a large paper dreidel on top and called it a Hanukkah bush. We scoured neighborhoods and searched for the best Christmas lights, and anticipated waking up Christmas morning to a bevy of presents. Of course, they were wrapped in Hanukkah paper, if we could find any.
For some Jewish and Interfaith families, this time of the year is often referred to as “The December Dilemma”, akin to Santa envy as my friend suggested when he said Hanukkah was a made-up holiday. Families struggle with how to make Hanukkah as exciting as Christmas, kind of like me strategizing how to win a footrace against Usain Bolt.
There is no need for competition and envy each December since Hanukkah and Christmas are nothing alike. They are apples and oranges, fruitcake and rugelach.
Or are they that different? Let’s see. One brings communities together while the other…brings communities together. One celebrates a miraculous event while the other…celebrates a miraculous event. One provides hope and promise for the coming year while the other…provides hope and promise for the coming year. One brings families together through tradition and food while the other…brings families together through tradition and food.
The holiday season is joyful and stressful. There is no need to add extra pressure by pitting Hanukkah against Christmas. Rabbi Moshe will never steer a sleigh guided by reindeer. Santa will never sit like a mensch on a bench and tell the story of Hanukkah. Why make the holidays be anything other than what they are? Both equally important, and both for real.
I am excited to light the first Hanukkah candle on Christmas Eve, and eight days later, all eight candles will be lit together on New Year's Eve. Hanukkah ends at sunset on New Year's Day. New Year's is a holiday celebrated by all. No competition there.