It’s fairly obvious that we Jews just don’t get Christmas. Don’t believe me? Check out BuzzFeed’s attempt to get Jews to decorate Christmas trees. (“Who’s Noel?” “Is that like, ‘grassy knoll’?”) Yet, every year we Jewish Americans wrestle as a people over whether or not to incorporate Christmas traditions into our own Hanukkah celebrations. It’s tacky. It’s trite. And it’s really, really lame. Here are five Hanukkah/Christmas hybrids that all Jews need to avoid this holiday season.
5. Christma-fying Yourself While Ignoring Hanukkah Altogether
This one is the fault of many a celebrity. Whether it’s Idina “Frozen” Menzel singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or catching a commercial featuring Andy Cohen trying to get on Santa’s good list, Jewish celebrities have been great at playing Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny Kaye. No one is a greater advocate and fan of The Goldbergs than me, but for the second year in a row my husband and I were disappointed at the total lack of a Hanukkah episode.
Hanukkah is the one time of year when Jews are permitted by the larger culture to express their Jewishness in public. We never expect to see a Goldberg’s Passover, or a Goldberg’s Rosh Hashanah, but unless you’re sitting under a rock, you know that Goldbergs (the Smiths of the Jewish world) would at least celebrate Hanukkah. Instead, we get a New Year’s theme with Christmas decorations around town galore (none in the home at least) and what we think was a menorah sitting on the mantle in the background of a few shots. This ain’t 1950 and you don’t need to be Orthodox to be Jewish on TV, especially during Hanukkah.
Can’t we represent, even just a little bit?
4. Putting up Hanukkah Bushes.
One of the most popular and disturbing trends is the Hanukkah bush. Jewish kids think a decorated tree in the house obviously means more presents. Let’s face it. We get one gift a night. Gentiles get piles of presents all at once. Kid logic makes sense in its own naive way. Or, does it? Long before Queen Victoria got her hands on the German trend, pagans were covering their doorways in evergreen boughs to ward off evil spirits during the darkness of winter. Egyptians, Vikings, and Romans all used local evergreens during winter months to honor their respective sun gods. For the Romans it was Saturn, and the Saturnalia winter solstice festival was eventually adapted into the Christmas holiday for a variety of non-Biblical reasons.
The closest Jewish connection to evergreens or trees for that matter is probably the Jewish National Fund, a non-profit that plants trees in Israel in order to “make the desert bloom again”. The idea of uprooting a tree to put it in one’s home, cover it with plastic for a month and then throw it out is about as contrary to Jewish nature as you could possibly get. Not only do we have a prayer specifically for the planting of new trees, we have a holiday known as Tu Bishvat specifically for the planting of new trees. Given that Hanukkah is all about reclaiming the Temple and rebuilding national sovereignty, cutting down a life — even an ecological one — is a complete contradiction to the spirit of the holiday.
3. Getting your kid a Mensch on a Bench.
Mensch on a Bench (and his newest friend Maccabee on the Mantle) is the Jewish version of the extremely creepy Elf on the Shelf. Beyond not believing in Santa, why would Jews ever embrace the rather Soviet idea of a doll monitoring your behavior and reporting back to an imaginary figurehead who decides whether or not you are deserving of gifts? To be sure, the Mensch plays a slightly different role for Jewish kids, helping to ingratiate them into the Hanukkah story by using the fictitious Mensch as an excuse to explain away the miracle of the oil. You know — the whole reason we celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a menorah for 8 nights. It ends with yet another annoying morality tale forcing kids to decide whether or not they want to be good in order to be rewarded with gifts. All that victorious Maccabee stuff, standing up for your God-given heritage in the face of pagan conquerors? Eh. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Where are the presents?
2. Dressing up as Hanukkah Harry.
When Jon Lovitz introduced Hanukkah Harry as the sarcastic alternative to Santa on Saturday Night Live, it was funny. When parents attempt to turn Hanukkah Harry into a mythical figure for their kids to fall in love with, it’s creepy. First we turned Hanukkah into a gift-giving holiday so the kids wouldn’t feel out of place next to their goyische counterparts, now we’re promulgating the “Santa has a Jewish cousin” myth in order to…what, exactly? Doing good, being good is considered a moral responsibility in Judaism. Good deeds are wrapped into the larger concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is our responsibility to do good and accept that the reward is in a job well done. Blessings over and above are gifts from God, not a guy dressed like a rabbi who has an eerie familiarity to the mythical Santa Claus.
1. Putting on Neighborhood Hanukkah Light Shows.
This isn’t why Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights.” Menorahs are ritual items with both Biblical and national significance. The lights that shine from the menorah symbolize the presence of God and the miracle of Hanukkah is that oil that should have allowed the menorah to burn from one night kept the menorah lit for 8 until more oil could be made. We commemorate God’s provision and presence in our lives as individuals and as a nation. Light is not about entertainment, nor is it meant to be coordinated with pop music for the amusement (or seizures) of our neighbors. In fact, outshining the menorah with flashing electric overload causes more than just Jews to miss the point. Isaiah instructs:
Arise, shine Jerusalem, for your light has come, the glory of Adonai has risen over you.
For although darkness covers the earth and thick darkness the peoples; on you Adonai will rise; over you will be seen his glory.
Nations will go toward your light and kings toward your shining splendor.
There is a very good reason why Hanukkah isn’t Christmas. Like it or not, we’re not meant to be like everyone else. We’re meant to be an example, a light to the world that reflects who God is in the lives of every human being, Jewish and gentile alike. It isn’t our job to fit in, it is our job to stand out. There is no better holiday than Hanukkah to teach and remember this, when we commemorate the willingness of Judah Maccabee and his family to stand apart, to rise above, and to claim victory in their God-given identity.