It’s Hanukkah once again, and with it comes holiday rivalry in the United States: Hanukkah versus Christmas. Lobbies of office buildings and stores come equipped with a decadent, glorious Christmas tree, complete with golden, wrapped presents and twinkling lights. Sometimes for us lucky ones, there’s an electric menorah sitting on a desk somewhere. If we’re really special, we’ll see a couple of blue and white ribbons hanging around or a dreidel that rests on a desk.
When I was younger, I used to despise Christmas. Sitting in my supposedly secular classrooms in the United States while we made ornaments for our classroom Christmas tree was horrible. Usually, a Jewish parent would come in and talk about how awesome Hanukkah was and would bring us some chocolate gelt or something, which the other kids in the classroom would gobble up. Being annoyed at the “sidebar” Hanukkah usually served to Christmas, I’d usually sit and pout, or get annoyed that I had to sing “Rock of Ages” in English.
When I would complain to my parents about having to listen to Christmas songs on the bus ride home every day between November 22 and December 25, or when we had school-wide Christmas parties, they would call the school to inquire about why my homework assignment was making a stocking to hang over the fireplace. But their calls were usually dismissed by parents and school officials who purported that a Christmas tree wasn’t a religious symbol.
Sure, it sounds like I was a spoiled brat, I know, and perhaps I was. But to this day, I think there is something deeper at play: I was irritated (and still get irritated in fact) that a supposedly “secular” country could have religious symbols in schools and get away with it.
Sure, Christmas trees probably emanate from a pagan ritual. And sure, many Jewish students now have Hanukkah bushes and string “dreidel lights” around their houses. But I’d be willing to bet that the majority of cultural, or ethnic, or even remotely-tied–to-religion Jews do not do these things, and, in fact, think it’s offensive.
I’m so tired of the comparison of Hanukah to Christmas and the secularization of Christmas. First, as Lewis Black, the famous comedian once said, “"When you compare Christmas to Hanukkah, there's no comparison. Christmas is great. Hanukkah sucks! First night you get socks. Second night, an eraser, a notebook. It's a Back-to-School holiday!" Maybe this is taking the comparison too far, but in essence, Black is right: how can you compare Hanukah, one of the most minor of holidays with candle lighting and fried food, to the whopping, fun time posed by Christmas? A menorah pales beside a tree, the gifts aren’t nearly as decadent, and, well, it’s not like everyone around you in the United States is celebrating Hanukkah - quite the opposite.
I’m also tired of the secularization of Christmas, and I’m sure there are religious Christians who would agree with me. It’s unacceptable to have either a menorah or a Christmas tree in any public setting: it’s disrespectful to the freedom of religion in the United States and promotes an uncomfortable environment for many non-Christians. Many Christians purport that the Christmas tree is an “American” symbol, or a non-Christian one. But let’s be honest with ourselves: how many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Tibetan Buddhists, Wiccans, etc do you know that have a Christmas tree? Little to none.
Of course, it’s relatively unreasonable and perhaps even a bit crazy to think that the Christmas fervor will go away anytime soon. In light of that, what’s a parent to do?
First, try your best to talk to the school officials about getting the school classes to stop using Christmas trees or decorating ornaments or Christmas stockings. There’s nothing more alienating to a Jewish kid than having to extensively decorate a religious object that you will never use. Often times, like with my parents, this won’t work. But the least you can do is try.
Second, show your child that Hanukkah can also be “mainstream.” One of the best ways to do this is to watch Hanukkah episodes of shows like Rugrats or, if your kids are older, listen to Adam Sandler’s epic “The Hanukkah Song” or watch Hanukkah-themed movies. YouTube has a plethora of fun videos that celebrate Hanukkah.
Third, complement activities at school with Hanukkah activities. Make puppets of the Macabees and re-enact the story. Clay menorahs are fun, or even better, use edible play dough and make candy menorahs instead of gingerbread houses. Finally, make use of your synagogue’s fun activities for children and young adults: it’s amazing how one small Hanukkah party can have an effect on kids and young teens.
Finally, we can acknowledge that these two holidays are completely different, and there is no need to compare. We should stop focusing on the presents and other materialistic aspects of the two holidays, and point our attention to what’s lovely about Hanukkah: fun singing, yummy food, and crazy dreidel marathons.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.