It’s that time of year again: Christmas. Oh, and Chanukah, too. For non-Jews, Chanukah has been built up to be perceived as the most important Jewish holiday, even though we all know the High Holidays are the real MVPs.
Growing up in the south, I was a small gefilte fish in a big winter wonderland pond during this time of year. It was difficult to explain to my non-Jewish friends why Santa didn’t come to my house or why I didn’t confront him about it at the mall.
So to answer all of those holiday questions and misconceptions out there, here’s a little something to put you at ease so you can deck the halls with matzo balls.
Oh, so this is like the Jewish Christmas?
No two words have ever created a stronger oxymoron. Although Chanukah and Christmas tend to fall in the same holiday season, that’s pretty much the only thing they have in common.
Chanukah must be an important holiday for you.
Actually, no. Chanukah has been built up to be some store-brand epic celebration because it happens to fall around Christmas. We don’t take off work or school. We don’t take an extra guilt trip to shul. We just eat.
The High Holidays and Shabbat are the most religiously significant, but if we’re talking about personal favorites, Purim is probably the most underrated Jewish holiday because, with all the revelry and costumes, it’s a lot like Halloween.
Why is it called the Festival of Lights?
Long version: As the story goes, the Maccabees revolted against the Greeks, won and liberated Jerusalem. In an effort to rededicate the Second Temple, Jews lit the menorah with only one day’s worth of oil, which miraculously lasted eight days, hence the Festival of Lights. Short version: The Greeks tried to kill us, we won and now we celebrate by eating a ton of greasy fried donuts and potatoes to remind us of the oil that lasted longer than expected.
You don’t take off work for Chanukah?
As much as I would love to spend eight days indulging on carbs to celebrate our people no longer being enslaved by the Hellenistic Greeks, the truth of the matter is that Chanukah is not as big a deal as people make it out to be. It’s an empowering story of overcoming religious persecution, but it’s not really in our top five holidays required to do something outrageously Jewy.
Is there a Jewish Santa?
If you believe in Hanukkah Harry or Hershel the Hanukkah Goblin, then sure. Otherwise, no. There’s a reason Friends character Ross Geller dressed up as the pathetic mascot the Holiday Armadillo: because Chanukah doesn’t actually have a mascot. We don’t have fun characters like Santa or Rudolph. We have the real history of the Maccabees and the Greeks. Chanukah has been made into a big to-do when really it is not the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar.
Wow, you get eight presents?!
It depends on each individual family. Some do seven small gifts with the eighth one being extravagant. Others just do one big gift. Some exchange no gifts at all. Why? Because the story of Chanukah isn’t about presents. It’s about overcoming religious persecution. (Of course, who wouldn’t want to celebrate that with some nice gold hoop earrings?) Gift-giving, in my opinion, is a way to not make the Jewish kids feel left out among their holly jolly peers. And based on my linear understanding of Christmas gift-giving from the cheesy holiday films I’ve seen, people who celebrate Christmas also get more than one present, especially with the addition of stocking stuffers and some big reveal Christmas morning, so the idea of eight presents shouldn’t be that shocking.
Where’s your Christmas tree? Do you at least have a Chanukah bush?
I do not have a Christmas tree because I don’t celebrate Christmas. It’s that simple. As fun as it sounds to participate in this tradition of garnishing a plant in my living room, the idea of a Chanukah bush is a sad alternative to a Christmas tree, in my opinion. If any Jew wants to decorate a shrubbery with an angel and lights as a way to feel included in the Christmas hysteria, be my guest. But it is not a Chanukah tradition.
Do you really go to the movies and eat Chinese food on Christmas?
Honestly, yes. Now not every Jew keeps this unofficial “tradition,” but it’s something that my family has always done simply because those are the only two interesting things open on that day … and we kind of think the stereotype is funny. Plus you get to see all your friends in town in one place by “coincidence” so it becomes a nice shindig.
Why does Chanukah start on a different day each year?
Chanukah follows the Jewish calendar and lasts for eight days. Because it is lunar-based, the days it falls on each year vary in the secular calendar. It’s just a coincidence that it falls around Christmas.
You must love Adam Sandler.
Yes, “The Chanukah Song” was funny in the ‘90s and Eight Crazy Nights was, well, it was tolerable. But just because he put out a few “Now That’s What I Call Chanukah” hits doesn’t mean he’s our golden calf.
If Chanukah lasts for eight days, why are there nine candles on that candelabra?
First, that candelabra is called a menorah. The taller candle in the middle (or often off to one side on more modern menorahs) is called the shamash, which means helper. The shamash is lit first, then you use that candle to light the others from right to left.
How do you spell Chanukah?
Two K’s? One N? No H? The phlegmy clear-your-throat “ch” instead of just H? There are dozens of ways to spell it phonetically in English. Just don’t ask me which one to use. I still don’t know.
Does Christmas offend you?
Not at all. Don’t get me wrong, though it seems like I am not full of Christmas cheer, I actually enjoy the Christmas season because just as much as most of the world, I view it as a fun holiday full of parties, ugly sweaters and candy canes. I can even name five out of nine reindeer and remember most of the lyrics to Jingle Bell Rock. However, from an outsider looking in, it’s unfortunate that the original celebration and religious purpose of Christmas itself is so far gone from our society today. We are so wrapped up with gift-giving and nog-drinking that some forget to reflect on the whole point, which is Jesus’ (half) birthday.
And on another note, I’m not offended when I’m doing my regular shopping during, well basically the entire month of December, and cashiers wish me a “Merry Christmas” on my way out. It’s a polite gesture either way, and if this is the one time of year when people are actually nice to each other and relatively pleasant, I’ll take it.
So you can talk about Christmas around me, include me in Secret Santa office gift exchanges or wish me a happy holiday. It’s OK. Being overly sensitive about it is just as bad as being ignorant. I won’t spontaneously combust when I hear the word Christmas. That doesn’t offend me. But what does is assuming that Chanukah is some distant cousin of Christmas, when really they have no relation.
Aren’t latkes basically hash browns?
Now I’m offended.
Rachel Kurland writes for the Jewish Exponent, in which this article first appeared.