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.

The answer to the child is incomplete. "We're Jewish--we have Hanukkah" is only the beginning of the response. "We're Jewish, and we have Hanukkah, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, Purim, Simchat Torah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Lag B'Omer, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Tu B'shvat--and, most importantly, Shabbat every week." The child who has experienced thebuilding of a sukkah will not feel deprived of trimming a tree. The child who has participated in a meaningful Passover Seder will not feel deprived of Christmas dinner. The child who has paraded with the Torah on Simchat Torah, planted trees at Tu B'shvat, brought first fruits at Shavuot, given mishloah manot at Purim, and welcomed the Shabbat weekly with candles and wine and challah by the time s/he is three years old will understand that to be Jewish is to be enriched by a calendar brimming with joyous celebration.

Then, of course, there are parents who believe that the December lesson, that Jews are different than almost everybody else, is an inescapable part of being Jewish, unless you live in Israel. There is a great value in being unique, different, valuable in your own right. In fact, for them, the celebration of Hanukkah in proximity to Christmas is a boon. They want their children to identify with the Maccabees' struggle for religious liberty and for the right not to assimilate into the majority culture. Is this not the very same struggle that we Jews living in a predominantly Christian society must also wage?

At the same time, most Jews are comfortable in North American society. The great promise of religious freedom has indeed created the diversity of culture that characterizes the free world. When we live side by side with other people of other religions, we must respect and appreciate their customs, arts, and traditions.

What does appreciation mean? It means that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the beauty of someone else's celebration. Is there any doubt that the music of Christmas is lovely and quite moving? Any number of rabbis and educators will admit that they are "closet carolers." How can one grow up in this culture and not learn the words to "White Christmas"? Can we deny the beauty of the Christmas tree, its ornaments and decorations? Not really. Shall we be embarrassed at finding ourselves moved to tears by the Christmas scene in It's a Wonderful Life? If we are strong in our Jewish commitments, there is little danger that appreciating the warmth and beauty of another's holiday will threaten our fundamental identity.

But appreciation does not mean appropriation. Because appropriation leads to confusion, loss of identity and ultimately, assimilation. And assimilation is what the Maccabees and generations of Jews after them fought so hard to prevent. To appropriate Christmas into our homes would give posthumous victory to Antiochus. Christmas does not belong in a Jewish home--period.

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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.