How Hanukkah Became the Jewish Christmas

It’s Hanukkah time again. The annual rite allows Christians to pay lip service to Jewish sensitivities with an ecumenical greeting of “happy holidays” and Jews to emulate Christians by stampeding to the shopping mall. It’s also a chance for purists to ruin the fun by insisting that Hanukkah has traditionally been a minor Jewish festival.

Yet this holiday — which commemorates the successful Israelite revolt in the second century B.C. against their Syrian oppressors and their refusal to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture — has become “the Jewish Christmas.” How did this happen? And is it good for the Jews?

The story begins with the commercialization of Christmas, which emerged as the major American feast only after German immigrants arrived in the United States after the Civil War. Then, in the late 19th century, came a revolution in retailing — the rise of department stores, mass marketing and advertising. Christmas parties, gift-giving, and greeting cards proliferated. The Coca-Cola Co. adopted as its logo a jolly bearded man in a red and white suit, and soon Santa bypassed Jesus as Christmas’s main icon.

Enter the Jews. Around 1900, millions of eastern European Jews came to the United States, congregating in urban enclaves such as New York’s Lower East Side. Most rapidly adopted American traditions, including the newly secularized Christmas.

“Santa Claus visited the East Side last night,” the New York Tribune noted on Christmas Day, 1904, “and hardly missed a tenement house.” Jews installed Christmas trees in their homes, and their children sang carols in the public schools.

The second generation of American Jews resisted this embrace of a festival that, despite its secular trappings, was fundamentally Christian. But parents couldn’t deprive their kids of gifts or seasonal merriment, and Hanukkah benefited from convenient timing. Instead of giving children the traditional “gelt,” or money, Jews began to exchange presents.

Jewish religious leaders, no longer insecure about fitting in, now urged schools to let Jews abstain from yuletide celebrations or to provide all-purpose holiday parties instead. Lighting the menorah proved a satisfying alternative to adorning a tree with colorful lights.

Hanukkah’s emphasis on self-reliance and military strength in the face of persecution dovetailed with the themes of American Zionists. The warrior-hero Judah Maccabee, leader of an ancient revolt, morphed into a proto-Zionist pioneer. Jewish organizations packed Madison Square Garden for fund-raising galas in support of a Jewish state, featuring such keynoters as Albert Einstein.

With the postwar migration to suburbia, Hanukkah shored up its place as American Jews’ No. 1 holiday. In the early ’50s, sociologist Marshall Sklare, studying a Chicago suburb, found that lighting Hanukkah candles ranked as the most popular “mitzvah,” or religious good deed, above hosting a Passover Seder and observing the Sabbath.

Sklare attributed the holiday’s popularity to its easy accommodation to Christmas rituals and its compatibility with modern values. The Hanukkah lesson being taught, Sklare noted, was no longer reverence to God for performing a miracle but rather the triumph over religious intolerance–a perfect message for liberal America in the age of civil rights.

Ozzie-and-Harriet Jews also modified their observances for the 1950s home. As Jenna Weissman Joselit has written, a Jewish guidebook from the era included recipes for ” ‘Maccabean sandwiches’ composed of either tuna fish or egg salad and shaped to resemble a bite-sized Maccabee warrior, or the ‘Menorah fruit salad,’ a composition of cream cheese and fruit that, when molded, resembled a menorah.”

By the late ’50s, Hanukkah paraphernalia grew to encompass dreidel-and-menorah-festooned decorations, paper goods, gift wrapping, greeting cards, chocolates, games, books and LPs. Parents could now assure children that Hanukkah wasn’t a poor man’s Christmas but a “better” holiday because presents lasted for eight days.

Since then, Jews have become more integrated into American life, and Hanukkah has embedded itself in television, office parties, Hallmark stores, Barnes & Nobles, and other leading American cultural institutions. The trend worries many Jews, who see it as proof of their people’s perilous assimilation.

Yet the evolution of Hanukkah represents not a capitulation to the forces of Christmas but an assertion of Jewishness within a multicultural society. Just as Kwanzaa, created in 1966, has returned many black Americans to their African heritage, so Hanukkah has helped tether Jews to their heritage and even returned them to the fold.

In a 1985 study, journalist Charles Silberman recounted how the Jewish writer Anne Roiphe, besieged with letters after confessing that she celebrated Christmas, switched to Hanukkah and found it more meaningful. Likewise, Silberman noted, more American Jews than ever were preferring Hanukkah to Christmas. 

Far from a sell-out, the continued observance of Hanukkah follows in the tradition of the Israelites who spurned the pressures to adopt the ways of Greek society. Indeed, in acculturating to the United States while maintaining their Jewishness, observers of Hanukkah may well be doing Judah Maccabee proud.

Historian David Greenberg is a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass.