Why Hanukkah Isn’t Jewish Christmas

Spencer Goldsmith, Staff Writer

Hanukkah seems to be one of the most well known Jewish holidays among non-Jews, especially in America. But what is Hanukkah, and why is it so well known? The Hanukkah story is one of Jewish perseverance. It recounts how a small Jewish group, known as the Maccabees, were able to rise up and evict the Syrian armies of Antiochus III, who had taken over the temple of Jerusalem and banned the practice of Judaism. It is told that after their victory, when the Jews cleaned the rubble in the temple and sought to relight the ner-tamid, or eternal light, they discovered that they only had enough oil for one night. While the journey to retrieve more oil would take the messenger eight days, through some miracle the oil they had lasted the entire time, prompting Hanukkah to be celebrated as an eight day festival with ritual candle lightings.

Though Hanukkah has been celebrated to some degree by Jews for hundreds of years, religiously it is a minor holiday. The celebration of Hanukkah began to gain popularity, especially among immigrant Jews in North America, in the 1920’s. It is largely thought that this boom in the observance of Hanukkah was caused by the influence of Christianity and Christmas. Hanukkah typically falls sometime in December, and was therefore popularized as a way of giving Jews something to celebrate around the same time as Christmas to aid in assimilation. It was in juncture with this that the practice of giving small gifts during Hanukkah was established. In recent years, the commercialization of Hanukkah, by Jews and gentiles alike, has also played a role in its increase in significance.

Despite all of this, Hanukkah is still a holiday that is deserving of respect, especially from those outside of the Jewish faith and culture. While it may seem contradictory to declare Hankkah a minor holiday and then promptly fight for its protection, the invalidation of Jewish customs in America is still an issue that Jews throughout the country face every year, and a holiday’s status should never be an excuse for its erasure.  Its religious significance may not be its most important feature, but the history represented by Hanukkah is vital to Jewish culture and life; allowing its traditional celebration to simply be merged with the customs of Christmas, and the history forgotten would be an unfortunate mistake.