Can the Jews Save Christmas?

Hanukkah is late this year. Will this help retailers?

The Christmas-shopping scorekeeping has already started, and the early numbers are mostly grim. While discounters like Wal-Mart are busy, mall-based specialty stores are slow. ShopperTrak today reported that the first two days of the holiday retail season were flat compared with last year. But there’s hope yet. We Jews could still save Christmas! As the Wall Street Journal put it: “Hanukkah doesn’t start until Dec. 25. That represents the likelihood of an especially large season-end surge.”

An “especially large season-end surge”? Oy vey. Hanukkah moves around with the Jewish lunar calendar, so it can start as early as November and as late as after Christmas. Every year, forecasters debate the possible impact of Hanukkah’s timing on Christmas sales. But I’m skeptical it will make much of a difference this year. In New York and other regional markets with large Jewish populations, the fact that Hanukkah falls late on the Christian calendar this year could affect the pace and timing of shopping. But given the numbers, Jews would have to perform superhuman feats of consumption—out of all proportion to their population, number of children, and income—to have anything but the most marginal impact on nationwide sales. Over the centuries, anti-Semites (and less frequently, philo-Semites) have endowed Jews with the ability to perform mystical feats. Saving the Christmas holiday shopping season isn’t one of them.

The Census Bureau doesn’t count the number of adherents to different religions in the United States. (Maybe the Bureau should hire famed nose-counter Fred Malek.)But the United Jewish Communities in 2000-2001 conducted a National Jewish Population Survey—here’s the executive summary—which concluded there were 5.2 million Jews in the United States. The population clock say today’s total U.S. population is close to 300 million. Assuming the Jewish population has been relatively stable in the past four years, Jews are about 1.7 percent of the population.

But not all Jews shop for Hanukkah. Many are assimilated and/or intermarried, and celebrate Christmas, or (ugh!) Chrismukkah. The UJC found that “the intermarriage rate for Jews who have married since 1996 is 47 percent.” And only one-third of the children produced by such unions are raised Jewish. Presumably, these households aren’t saving their holiday shopping dollars for the Festival of Lights. Meanwhile, affiliated Jews from the right and left ends of the spectrum aren’t big Hanukkah shoppers either. Many Orthodox Jews regard the gift-giving component of Hanukkah as a mere imitation of Christmas and instead focus on the historical and religious significance of the non-biblical, proto-nationalist holiday. The Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn aren’t flocking to Best Buy the day after Thanksgiving. Neither are many left-leaning, Tikkun-reading Jews, who regard Hanukkah gift-giving as another exercise in vulgar American materialism.

Demographically speaking, Jewish families are not well designed for heavy holiday spending. UJC found that Jews are more likely to be elderly and childless than the general population. In 2000-2001, 19 percent of Jews in the United States were over 65, compared with 12 percent of the whole population. Nine percent of Jews were 75 or over, compared with 6 percent of the total U.S. population. Not big holiday shoppers.

What’s more, Jews, who are less likely to be married, haven’t been very good at being fruitful and multiplying. “In all childbearing age groups, Jewish women have given birth to fewer children than U.S. women,” the population survey notes. Among Jews, children were only 20 percent of the population, compared with 26 percent of the United States at large.

Now, if all Jews were extremely wealthy and had plenty of money to spend, they could surely have a hugely disproportionate effect on consumer spending. But—and this will come as a huge disappointment to anti-Semites—they’re not. Jews are doing plenty well as a group, but not well enough to flip GDP. According to the UJC survey, in 2000, 34 percent of Jewish households had income over $75,000, compared to 17 percent of all U.S. households. Jewish households had a median income of $54,000, nearly 30 percent higher than the U.S. median. Some 22 percent of Jewish households had income of less than $25,000, compared with 28 percent of all U.S. households.

The Conference Board, based on surveys, said a typical American household will spend $466 on holiday gifts this year, down slightly from last year. Those with incomes over $50,000 would spend $657. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the average Jewish Hanukkah-shopping household spends five times the national average, or about $2,300. If there are 2 million such households, they’d account for about $4.7 billion in spending. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket. The National Retail Federation expects holiday sales, which it broadly defines as all retail industry sales in November and December, will total $439.5 billion. So, even if all Jews procrastinate and buy their Hanukkah presents toward the end of December rather than at the end of November, it still won’t make more than a tiny difference in overall spending.

Merchants who are waiting around for late Hanukkah shoppers will likely be disappointed. This year, as every year, the greatest Jewish contribution to the American Christmas season is likely to be Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.