It’s that wonderful time of year when we get to eat fried foods, gamble with chocolate money, and light candles for eight days. Yes, it is Hanukkah, the quintessential Jewish holiday: they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat! It is also the time of year when some Jews, and even some Christians, insist that Hanukkah receive the same public attention as Christmas. But should Hanukkah and Christmas be celebrated on equal terms? To help answer this question, I have compiled a comprehensive list of all the things Hanukkah and Christmas have in common:
- Observed in Winter, usually in December
- Songs that begin with the word “O”
A rather short list. Just because Jews and Christians are both celebrating holidays at the same time of year does not make these holidays equal.
“But wait,” you say. “Aren’t there some things missing from this list? What about giving gifts?” Well, yes, some Jews observe the custom of giving gifts each night of Hanukkah just like their Christian neighbors give gifts on Christmas, but we give these gifts for very different reasons. Christmas gift giving is a custom almost as old has Christmas observance itself. Just as the Magi brought gifts to honor the Christ child, Christians for centuries have exchanged gifts on Christmas.
Jews, on the other hand, have been giving gifts on Hanukkah for only a few generations. In fact, there is nothing in the Hanukkah story about gifts. So why do we give gifts on Hanukkah? Well, in an ironic twist, during a celebration of resistance to assimilation American Jews did not want their children to feel different and alienated during Christmas and started giving them gifts during Hanukkah.
What is really going here is what is called, “False Equivalence,” a typical logical fallacy. A superficial, coincidental similarity (e.g. time of year) does not mean these holidays are equal in importance to their respective faiths. Christmas is, in this Jew’s humble opinion, one of the most significant holidays in Christianity. Hanukkah, on the other hand, is considered a “minor” holiday. More specifically, it is a rabbinic holiday: it not mentioned in Torah. During Hanukkah, we recall how a small band of determined rebels defeated an evil, corrupt empire (sounds like a plot for a movie franchise!), while the Christmas story is one of the foundational myths[i] of Christianity. Hardly an equivalence!
There is, however, an interfaithED way to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah without devaluing one by inflating the other: acknowledge the differences and celebrate the similarities. The most important similarity between Christmas and Hanukkah is that the observances of both holidays center around the universal Three “F’s”: Food, Family, and Faith. Three things everyone can celebrate. Chag Sameach!
[i] I am using the “myth,” Gentile Reader, not in the colloquial, a made-up story, but in the scholarly, the stories a culture tells about itself and what it believes.