There are a number of holiday-specific challenges that Jews face during Hanukkah, including how to rid one’s house of the smell of latkes and how to clean last night’s wax out of the menorah. But these, along with the vast majority of other Hanukkah concerns, are minor compared to the existential struggle set off by the holiday’s proximity to Christmas. This year, the December dilemma has taken on supersize proportions due to a rare alignment of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, making it so Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve. We won’t see another Chrismukkah until 2073.
While the overlapping of the two holidays will surely steel many Jews’ resolve to present Hanukkah as a worthy competitor to Christmas, I suggest we Jews go in the complete other direction and let Christmas win. This doesn’t necessarily mean celebrating Christmas; rather, I propose simply relieving ourselves of the notion that Hanukkah should, or could, be its equal. Those in interfaith families, where Chrismukkah—as both a threat and an ideal—looms over each and every decision this holiday season, stand to benefit most from accepting this.
In a nod to Jews and our fondness for typological numbers, I have come up with eight reasons as to why Jews should yield to the Yuletide—one for each night of Hanukkah.
I’ll begin at the beginning, and point out that Hanukkah was traditionally a minor holiday. It’s one of the few that doesn’t appear in the Jewish biblical canon, is light on liturgy, and unlike on more serious holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Jews are permitted to work. Because of its relatively flimsy textual base, Hanukkah has been tweaked and twisted over the years to meet contemporary needs. The older part of the story can be found in the Book of Maccabees, which tells of the revolt, and eventual triumph, of Jews over Syrian Greeks during the second century C.E. Not until centuries later did Talmudic rabbis, in an attempt to inject some more divine intervention into what was an otherwise largely nationalistic tale, integrate the miracle element into the holiday. Before that, the story about one small jar of oil lasting for eight nights was likely an oral legend.
Hanukkah mostly avoided heavy-handed meddling until up around the 20th century, when it became an aspirational parable for Zionists and a counterweight to Christmas for American Jews. The latter involved the integration of Christian traditions like gift-giving (Jews traditionally give gifts during Purim), and over-the-top decorative displays. Today, giant menorahs can be seen in public spaces across the country, and Jews can outfit their homes with everything from Hanukkah stockings to menorah trees. L’chaim!
This brings me to point number two: No matter how hard we try to dress up Hanukkah, it will never have the incandescent appeal of Christmas. I’m an observant-ish Jewish woman married to a secular-ish half-Jewish man with whom I am Jewishly raising a four-year-old boy. Over the past few years I have put great effort in seeking out Hanukkah-themed music, movies, and books of moderate quality to get him excited for the holiday. What I’ve discovered is that it’s mostly dreck, especially compared to many the cinematic, theatrical, and musical delights created for Christmas. Apart from the ultra-Orthodox who take great efforts to firewall all aspects of secular culture, it is incredibly difficult for most Jews to avoid the cultural offerings surrounding Christmas. I no longer think it’s worth trying, which brings us to point number three: The more Jewish parents separate their kids from all things Christmas, the more the holiday takes on an air of ecstatic transcendence that we are tragically denied. I suffered from this affliction as a child and wasn’t remedied of it until I spent a Christmas with my high school boyfriend’s family. Turns out it was perfectly lovely, but not otherworldly, holiday—much like the Jewish and secular ones my family regularly celebrated.
Point four: Letting Christmas win doesn’t mean that Jews should stop celebrating Hanukkah, only that we stop competing by inflating it beyond it’s already ridiculous, and ahistorical, proportions. This year, that might mean keeping Hanukkah celebrations modest in families without Christmas-celebrating relatives or close friends. For those Jews in interfaith families who do celebrate Christmas, I suggest modestly lighting the menorah on Christmas Eve and saving the latkes, dreidels, and donuts for another evening—you have seven to choose from. This will, point five, not only provide some much-needed aesthetic unity to the decor and digestive relief for attendees already struggling to metabolize the eggnog, ham, and butter cookies, but also provide some cultural clarity for young children.
Attempts to hybridize will only dilute both holidays and, number six, are unfair to your non-Jewish companions. Here’s the thing: If your friends or relatives are religious and believe that this is the day Christ was born, this holiday is a really big deal for them. Go ahead and fulfill the minimum halachic (Jewish legal requirements) of saying a few prayers and lighting a few candles and then hand over the evening to them. Alternatively, if the Christmas celebration is secular, as it is at my in-laws, it is probably the one big holiday they come together all year and you should therefore do the same. As my seventh point, I would like to note that allowing Jewish children in interfaith families to experience Christmas will not inevitably launch them into a lifetime of confusion. Research shows that children of intermarriage are increasingly identifying as Jews. A night kibitzing around a Christmas tree is not a death knell.
For those Jews who remain unconvinced and are still feeling threatened by the cultural hegemony of the holidays, this final point is for you. Stop worrying about Christmas’s effect on Hanukkah and use that energy to amp up your observance of one of the many other ritually and thematically richer Jewish holidays. (If you are a Jew who already observes the full gamut of Jewish holidays and not only knows how to pronounce the Shemini Atzeret, but also has a full grasp on its significance, then I presume you don’t feel threatened by Christmas and this advice doesn’t pertain to you.) A good and simple place for many to start is Shabbat, which, conveniently, occurs on a weekly basis. Other ideas: Build a sukkah and invite your friends and family to dine al fresco with you for a week during the holiday of Sukkot, or attend services on Simchat Torah during which congregants throw around candy and adults dance around drunk, all to honor the five books of Moses. Really, any Jewish observance not involving Santa hat yarmulkes will do.