I celebrate Hanukkah, but here’s why I love Christmas

All I want for Hanukkah is Christmas.

I grew up in suburban Chicago surrounded by my fellow Jews — at school, at camp, at my parents’ friends’ houses, and in the streets and parks of my neighborhood.

Even then, I knew that Jews made up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population — but in my childhood world, we were the 99 percent. If you had stopped 11-year-old me on the street and asked, I could have recited lengthy Hebrew prayers by heart, or told you about the codifying of Jewish law in 200 C.E. But when it came to Christianity, I had a basic idea of what Easter was, and probably could have provided a brief bio of Jesus, culled mostly from popular culture. That was about it.

Until December rolled around. Christmas was inescapable — I loved it. I still do.

Christmas is everywhere. It’s at the malls, in the candy aisle of the grocery store, on the radio and TV, and in the movie theater. And I get how it can all be overwhelming. I understand how it’s a bit much for people to be bombarded starting from Thanksgiving — make that Halloween — with carols and candy canes, Santa and reindeer, manger scenes and mistletoe and trees.

And I know that for lots of people, it’s a bit much how everything is red and green, especially if it’s not even your holiday. Plus — on an intellectual level, at least — I object to the commercialism, the conspicuous consumption and the tackiness of it all.

But if I’m being honest: I love the tackiness. I love the manufactured happiness. I love feeling snow on my shoulders, walking into a heated cafe, sipping hot cider and hearing a Christmas song — probably written by a Jewish composer.

I love the contrast between the terrible weather and the enveloping cheer, however artificial. I love being able to enjoy Christmas spirit without having to worry about it affecting the way I celebrate Christmas.

Because I don’t celebrate Christmas. See, we Jews have our own winter festival — it’s called Hanukkah.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Hanukkah. But in the United States, it’s kind of weak sauce. If Christmas is a thick, juicy hamburger on a sesame bun, American Jews have tried to make Hanukkah into a black-bean burger — something that’s perfectly edible but, really, nothing like the real deal. Hanukkah would be fine as its own separate thing. But instead we’ve flattened it into a cheap imitation of something else.

I’m Jewish, so of course I celebrate Hanukkah. I’m down with the story, the victory of the weak over the strong, the faith fulfilled when a small flask of oil lasted eight days. I’ve even nerded out over the two alternate Hebrew spellings of “Maccabee” and how they correspond to today’s religious-secular divide in Israel (www.tinyurl.com/sales-debate).

But I’ve never liked how American Hanukkah becomes a diluted, Jewish version of Christmas. So the Christians give presents for Christmas? Sure, we’ll give Hanukkah presents, too. They have holiday sweaters? Sure, we’ll have those, too.

Just as I can enjoy the Christmas spirit because I don’t feel personally invested in the holiday, I feel disappointed in Hanukkah precisely because I am invested in it. And in any case, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. I don’t begrudge its significance for anyone, but in Jewish tradition it’s treated as less important than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover and a couple others.

That’s why, in Israel, where I lived for five years, Hanukkah is certainly celebrated, but doesn’t receive top billing. There are decorations, menorahs in the windows and sufganiyot on bakery shelves. Kids get a few days off to sing and play. Giving Hanukkah presents isn’t really a thing there.

Contrast that with the season that runs from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot and Simchat Torah, a series of festivals and holidays. In Israel, before Rosh Hashanah, supermarkets are stocked with apples, honey and pomegranates, and temporary sidewalk stands sell greeting cards. On Yom Kippur, streets and shops are closed. Religious people wear white and gravitate to synagogue, while those who aren’t fasting crowd empty streets with bikes. On Sukkot, there are temporary huts from people’s porches to public squares.

For close to a month, little business gets done. Need to schedule a meeting or start a work project? “After the holidays” is the common refrain. The Jewish holidays there are celebrated on their own merits, not judged against the overwhelming dominance of another religion’s season.

So spare me your Chrismukkah and your Hanukkah bush, and let me culturally enjoy the most wonderful time of the year the way America clearly wants me to.

If Bob Dylan (who released “Christmas in the Heart” in 2009) can rock out to an album’s worth of Christmas music, so can I. n

Ben Sales is a staff writer at JTA.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter