Last winter, my 8-year-old son’s first holiday season in America, was an eye-opener for us both. His eyes were first opened to the great beauty of Christmas, the lights, the trees, the holiday sales. My eyes were first opened to the allure of America’s December, the ways in which it can influence the young souls of my Jewishly naive kids. “Dad,” my son asked me, displaying the most puppylike expression he could muster, “can we also get some lights and decorations next year?” (The answer was no.) It was not the power of religion that prompted the request—my sons are clueless about the spiritual rituals of Christmas. His request stemmed from pure consumerism and the realization that the whole nation is celebrating something of which he is not a part. Suddenly, the phenomenon known to every Jewish-American as the Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma was up close and personal. But it’s not something I have to worry about with Passover.
The Passover Seder is the second-most-observed holiday ritual among Jewish-Americans. Sixty-seven percent reported that they attend the Seder—the feast held on the first night of Passover, during which the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is retold. While Hanukkah sprang into favor because of its proximity to Christmas, no competition is needed to emphasize the importance of Passover. It has been the leading Jewish holiday since biblical times and remains such. The Christian Easter, which is celebrated around the same time of the year, does not threaten, overshadow, challenge, or alter Passover. The overwhelming power of Passover and the nature of Easter will keep those December “holiday season” challenges at bay. A spring dilemma has never materialized, and there’s no reason to suspect that it ever will.
Passover is the Big One of Jewish holidays, despite what some outside observers think—the payoff for Jews after a winter holiday season. “The child who has participated in a meaningful Passover seder will not feel deprived of Christmas dinner,” wrote Dr. Ron Wolfson, a Jewish educator, in an article about the December dilemma. That might not be the most convincing argument to make to a kid: If you’ll just take a look at a calendar and remember that Passover is only four months ahead, it will help you overcome your Christmas gloom. But Wolfson is on to something: Building on the ritualistic power of Passover is not a bad idea. The Seder is not just the Jewish Christmas dinner; it is the Jewish Thanksgiving as well—the dinner that encompasses both the mystique of religion and the sentiment of nationality. Judaism, most adherents believe, is both religious and nationalistic in nature. Jewish “peoplehood” is one of its core principles.
But Passover is not just rich in ritual. The magnetic, global clout of the ideas and the story at its core are almost impossible to resist. Hannukah celebrates the Jews’ resistance to outside influence from the Greeks thousands of years ago, but today, it’s encroached upon by Christmas. In contrast, the ideas of Passover are easier to identify with in free, liberal, pluralistic America. The values of freedom, redemption, emancipation—the story about the slaved individuals who become a people—are all humanistic in nature. You don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate those and understand their meaning. Easter, as significant as it might be for a Christian who believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death, can’t overshadow the universal appeal of “let my people go.”
But religious issues aside, Easter was never a challenge to Jewish parents because it never became the secular-friendly national holiday Christmas is. Easter doesn’t carry with it a heavyweight consumerism ritual, baskets of candy and egg hunts notwithstanding. Americans spend $457 billion in the “winter holidays,” but a relatively paltry $14 billion for Easter, according to the National Retail Federation. Even the symbols of the holiday are, well, smaller: The bunny and the eggs don’t have the presence of the tree and the cheerfulness of the Santa Claus convoy.
Passover may not be threatened—but that’s not necessarily a good thing if one worries about its future status. In reality, the long shadow of Christmas really was a second Hanukkah miracle. While a fairly small minority of Jews have tried to de-emphasize the holiday to prevent it from becoming “the Jewish Christmas,” most Jewish leaders and communities continue to elevate it to counterbalance the magnetism of Christmas. From the secondary role it had on the Jewish calendar in the past, Hanukkah was catapulted to a major American holiday. Unsurprisingly, the data show that the Passover Seder is observed by a higher number of “highly affiliated” Jews. However, among the “moderately affiliated” and the “nonaffiliated”—those who are more inclined to be influenced by the power of Christmas—it is Hanukkah that’s celebrated more feverishly. They need it to make it possible for them to survive the Christmas allure.
Consumerism, without a doubt, makes a holiday more popular and meaningful on the yearly calendar. But holiday capitalism also presents itself through the rules of competition. Christmas is what made Hanukkah, well, more competitive, and it’s what made Hanukkah’s adherents more creative and innovative, like the now-widespread American custom of giving Jewish kids eight presents, one for each day of Hanukkah.
But that’s not the way things work for Passover. This holiday, apparently, was strong enough to stand on its own feet. Maybe it’s because it had a tradition that pays special attention to the Torah command “you shall tell your child” (Exodus 13:8), which turns every parent into the storyteller of Jewish history and helps Passover cruise through eras and generations.
One can look at this Passover tradition and make a case with which to prove the superiority of content over consumerism. Or, tongue in cheek, one can read the Haggadah—the Jewish textbook that’s read by the table on the evening of the Seder—and contemplate the even more specific instructions it gives: “The more one expands and embellishes the story, the more commendable it is.” And what’s more in line with current-day holiday consumerism than this “the more, the better”?