No, Hanukkah is not 'Jewish Christmas.' But sometimes it looks that way. Here’s why.

·Senior Editor
·6 min read
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 17: A person walks by the
A giant dreidel marked Hanukkah in New York City last year. Why does the holiday resemble Christmas more and more? (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

As any Jewish parent in America understands — or any Jewish adult who has ever been a kid in America, for that matter — "holiday season" can be a fraught time, filled with Christmas tree and Santa envy, all backed by an aggressive soundtrack of carols.

More recently, though, the commercialism surrounding Hanukkah has ramped up, too (Mensch on a Bench, anyone?), much to the chagrin of many on social media: Recently, a TikTok user named Emma so perfectly eviscerated a range of tone-deaf Hanukkah pillows sold by Bed Bath & Beyond that she went viral, eventually prompting the home-goods retailer to remove some of its ill-conceived offerings.

Meanwhile, The Forward offered its own version of a Hanukkah-tchotchke analysis, and an Instagram page, Hanukkah Fails, continues to highlight various items, asking, "Oy, was anyone Jewish even consulted on these products?"

Still, noted the New York Times, while tracing the rise of Hanukkah-themed commercialism, "More than 150 years ago, American Jews faced the opposite problem. Families settling in U.S. cities found that December was filled with cheer for Christian families — caroling, decorations, presents — while Jewish children were left without much levity to distract from the winter gloom."

Now the glitz over the eight-day holiday — which is happening right now, and falls on a different day each year as it's marked on the Jewish as opposed to the Gregorian calendar — seems to be peaking. Still, it often misses the mark, just like much of this country's understanding of the holiday altogether.

"At its core, Hanukkah is about celebrating our Jewish particularity, relishing our differences from the wider world," notes a Washington Post opinion piece. And, while acknowledging that much of the "commercialized Christmas creep" may be "attempting a sort of cultural sensitivity," the writer still stresses, "The entire point of Hanukkah is that it’s not Christmas."

So how can Jews and non-Jews alike make sense of what’s going on? Yahoo Life turned to experts for help.

What is Hanukkah, anyway?

Hanukkah is the Jewish "festival of lights," observed with a nightly hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) lighting, prayers, gift-giving (an American, non-historic adaptation) and fried foods.

It marks the time back in 2 B.C. when, according to the narrative, a small band of Jewish resisters in now-Israel succeeded at stopping the ruling Greeks from forcing Jews to drop their religious beliefs and assimilate. In their resistance, the rebel Maccabees reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the Greek army, and miraculously succeeded in keeping the temple’s menorah lit for eight days with just a tiny bit of remaining oil. That victory is what's celebrated today, through both the lighting of candles and the eating of foods like potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts (sufganiyot) that have been fried in oil.

The story, points out Dianne Ashton, author of Hanukkah in America: A History and professor of religious studies at Rowan University, "is not child-centered." But, she tells Yahoo Life, "since Christmas has become so dominant a force in American culture that school children are expected to sing Christmas hymns, Hanukkah has become a very important holiday for Jewish families who need to find a way to make their children happy to be Jewish in December."

As compared with other Jewish Holidays, Hanukkah is still somewhat muted, with less gravitas than, say, Yom Kippur or Passover, and not equal in weight to Christmas for Christians.

But that doesn't mean it’s "minor" — a point made with passion recently by Rabbi Yoni Dahlen of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich., who took to TikTok (where he is the "Motor City Rabbi"), to explain why Jewish people calling Hanukkah a "minor holiday," and saying that "we've elevated it to feel like we're fitting in a little bit" is one of his "biggest rabbinical pet peeves."

Because while it may be true, Dahlen says, "Who cares?"

"I think a lot of the work I do is about trying to engage people who don't feel so empowered in their Judaism," Dahlen tells Yahoo Life. "One of those struggles is Hanukkah." That’s because, for secular Jews in particular, since the holiday usually comes around the time of Christmas, "you can feel othered and lonely."

Because of that, he notes, some people will indeed "stand proud and celebrate," even if it means their version of Hanukkah has "taken on an Americanized, almost Christmas-like quality, with Mensch on a Bench, Hanukkah stockings… It's all kind of silly, but it's a place for empowerment for some Jews who grew up feeling othered at Christmastime." Dahlen doesn't worry about how Jews choose to celebrate Hanukkah, because, he says, "I want people to have their foot in the door [to Judaism], in whatever way, but then elevate the hanukkuiah and dreidels and gelt and fried food all week — all the things that are uniquely ours."

Rather than guilt Jews for how they choose to celebrate, Dahlen says, he likes to highlight that "when we have our own rituals that are unique to us, then it's exactly what Hanukkah is about, which is about being proud of being Jewish."

So how can we all understand the Americanization of Hanukkah?

Ashton told The Forward that the explosion of the Hanukkah-themed gift items in mega-chain stores is actually a positive sign of greater Jewish acceptance in American society. "You have to put this in perspective," she said, "because there was a time not too long ago when you never found anything Jewish anywhere."

She points out to Yahoo Life, "In recent years, the rate of Jews marrying non-Jews/Christians is almost 50 percent. For many of those mixed families, the Hanukkah goods work very well to make their homes reflect both religious traditions."

Even after adding gift-giving and some other newly flashy aspects of Hanukkah, though, the Jewish holiday still manages to get its point across, which, as she explains in her book, "is the vehicle through which Jews draw distinctions between themselves and the majority society."

Adds Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Wash., "We're not giving up Hanukkah to celebrate Christmas, we are just celebrating Hanukkah to a greater extent that affirms Judaism in a way that we determine."

Goldstein, also a frequent TikTokker, known on the platform as "Rabbi 360," echoed Dahlen in a recent video, when he asked fellow Jews, "Can we stop saying that Hanukkah is a 'minor' Jewish holiday?" Because when we say that, he believes, it's because "we feel inadequate about how Hanukkah has come to be celebrated next to Christmas. And to that I say: So what? Judaism has never existed in a vacuum, and it's always influenced by the major culture."

"I'm not an advocate for 'Hanukkah bushes,' but I mean, we put up lights in my house and have a pile of presents, but we're lighting the menorah and eating latkes," he tells Yahoo Life, noting that there is a concept in Judaism of hiddur mitzvah, of "making our rituals and ritual objects beautiful and special."

So while some Jews may face an inner battle of wanting to both celebrate and scale back Hanukkah, "there could be a balance between commercialization and meaning," Goldstein says. "They're not necessarily mutually exclusive."

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting