The December Dilemma

Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas has greatly affected the way the holiday is viewed.

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This article is reprinted with permission from Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Early childhood educators tell us that one of the most crucial stages in socialization occurs when a child is between 18 and 30 months old and attends another child's birthday party. When the birthday cake is brought in, most of the little guests try to blow out the candles right along with the birthday child. As the child opens presents, little hands start to grab for the toys. Why do you think "party favors" were invented? To help children begin to distinguish between what's mine and what's his/hers. Toddlers must learn the difference between celebrating one's own birthday and celebrating someone else's. hanukkah quiz

Thus many Jewish educators will advise parents to give their children who want to celebrate Christmas a very important message: Christmas is someone else's party, not ours. Just as we can appreciate someone else's birthday celebration and be happy for them, we can wonder at how beautiful Christmas is, but it is not our party.

And then many parents make a perfectly understandable, but incomplete, leap. "Christmas is for Christians. They have Christmas. We are Jewish. We have Hanukkah." In an attempt to substitute something for Christmas, the parent offers Hanukkah. In fact, Hanukkah is even better than Christmas. "Christmas is only one day. Hanukkah is for eight!" So now, incredible as it seems, the parental anxiety leads to the teaching that our party lasts longer, offers more presents, and is just as beautiful.

santa and hanukkahOf course, the problem is that it just isn't true. Hanukkah cannot hold a candle to Christmas. As we have learned, it is a minor event in the Jewish holiday cycle and has never, until recently, been viewed as a central celebration for the Jewish people. Therefore, the customs and ceremonies surrounding Hanukkah pale by comparison to those of Christmas--which is one of the two major holidays of Christianity.

In fact, it seems clear that among Jews who stand on the periphery of Jewish life, the attempt to combat Christmas with Hanukkah is doomed to failure. Even the sometimes outrageous attempts by mass marketers to inflate the importance of Hanukkah as the "Jewish alternative" to Christmas feel wrong in some fundamental way. "Hanukkah Harry" and "Hanukkah bushes" and even "Smiley Shalom," a Jewish version of "Frosty the Snowman," cannot hope to compete with the magnificence of the Christmas celebration.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.