Culture

No, Hanukkah Is Not the Jewish Christmas

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“Did we forget to do something?” That was my husband whispering to me the other day at our son’s preschool. Other parents were coming in and handing the teacher cards. Christmas cards, to be precise, replete with photos of angry children forced onto Santa’s lap for the obligatory holiday shot.

“Hon, they’re Christmas cards. We don’t do those, remember?” I smiled. He got the joke and nodded.

Hanukkah isn’t Christmas. Yes, they tend to fall at the same time of year, but that’s really the beginning and the end of the similarities shared between the two holidays. Well, there’s that whole festival of lights theme that Christians sort of stole from us, but since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery we’re willing to let it go.

Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrated very, very differently. You don’t realize that until you’re the Jewish mom in a primarily gentile preschool loaded with Pinterest parents who can’t conceive of the fact that you aren’t up, night after night, shopping, wrapping and baking. Here are a few of the very distinct, and distinctly amusing, differences between the one-day Christian blowout fest and our eight crazy nights:

1. Our gifts are way lamer than yours. The Goldbergs got it right when they depicted Hanukkah gifts in terms of socks, pencils and maybe, just maybe a new CD. (Do kids even know what those are anymore?) Hanukkah was never about the presents. Christmas, on the other hand, is literally all about the presents. American Jews just started incorporating small (and not-so-small) gifts into the holiday so their kids wouldn’t feel left out.

2. There is no such thing as “decorating” for Hanukkah. As Melissa Langsam Braunstein so wittily points out, Jews don’t “decorate” for Hanukkah. Sure, we put a menorah out. Some families even have a menorah for each member of the household that gets lit each night. But, that’s a religious ritual item, not a “decoration.” It might be the Festival of Lights, but we’re no Griswolds.

3. We don’t bake, either. Truly dedicated Jewish women will make homemade sufganiyot (jelly donuts) but most of us just stop by a bakery if our family isn’t loaded with diabetics or health food nuts. Latkes usually grace the table, but they’re more like a featured side dish to a nice meal that in no way tops the Thanksgiving-like insanity that comes (at least for some Jews) every week during Shabbat.

4. We have no Santa. Along with gifts being rather lame, we have no real justification for giving them. Good behavior is a requirement throughout the year, not just in exchange for presents delivered by some mysterious stranger. In fact, given our collective history, we try to avoid mysterious strangers; if anything we’re the ones assuaging them with gifts, hoping they’ll go away in peace.

5. We have no idea how to do a huge holiday in one day. Literally none of our major holidays are celebrated in one day in America, with the exception of Yom Kippur (for obvious reasons). Why are you putting yourselves through such torture for one day? I highly recommend Leslie Loftis’s advice to stretch out the holiday to your advantage.

6. Cards are a 50/50. Some do, some don’t. Not required. A lot of those greetings come during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

7. There usually aren’t big family get-togethers. Unless you have young kids and/or the grandparents haven’t yet flocked to Florida, chances are there isn’t a big family party. Contrary to popular song lyrics we really don’t spend the evening spinning dreidels for candy. World domination, on the other hand…

8. We don’t wear family Hanukkah pajamas. This isn’t really a thing outside of stock photos in ads, right?

9. There are no Hanukkah “carols” (although I’m cool if this becomes one). As South Park illustrated so very long ago, we have very few Hanukkah songs and one of them is so darn repetitive you really don’t want to sing it too much, lest you get caught in the loop. The second most popular is Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages – no, not the Victorian hymn) of which I know the following spoof lyrics from my husband: “Maoz Tzur yeshuati, my Daddy bought me a Mercedes.” Guess that’s our version of Jingle bells, Batman smells, so we do have something in common, at least.

Please, don’t be jealous. When I’m going crazy baking apple cakes for Rosh Hashana or cleaning my house for Passover, just remember all the insane stuff you do for Christmas. Then, when Christmas rolls around, instead of staring at me like I have lobsters crawling from my ears when I tell you I’m under zero stress, feel free to come over for coffee to escape the madness. And whatever you’re celebrating, don’t forget to have fun doing it!