Chanukah vs. Christmas: A Jewish Perspective

by Bob Schneider

I was raised Jewish in a small town of 20,000 people in central Indiana.  My father was a Chicago Jew and my mother was a small town Hoosier Christian.  However, she never felt comfortable with the tenets of Christianity.  So when she met my father, she found that Judaism more closely fit her views, and she converted to Judaism when they were married.  The town around me was almost completely Christian, mostly Protestant of various denominations, along with a small Catholic community.  So Christmas was all around me.

It can be tricky growing up Jewish in a Christian town.  For one thing, we had to commute to Indianapolis to go to synagogue for religious school and Friday night Sabbath services.  Even today during the holiday season, people I meet in everyday interactions wish me “Merry Christmas” – with the best of intentions, of course.  Sometimes I feel like I should return the greeting with “Happy Chanukah,” but most of the time I just avoid any discomfort and simply reply, “Happy Holidays!”  If I’m feeling particularly jolly, I will come back with a “Happy HanaKwanzaaChristmakah” or “Happy ChristmaHanaKwanzaamas” to be jokingly politically correct.

When I was a kid, we “celebrated” both holidays.  We celebrated Chanukah, with its eight days of candle lighting and gifts.  But out of respect for my mother’s family, we also celebrated Christmas with extended family get-togethers and gift exchanges.  We observed Christmas not so much as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but as a time of family and friends spending time together. 

We celebrated Chanukah by retelling the story of the Maccabees defeating the Greek Assyrian armies to regain religious freedom, and the story of the miracle of the oil that was enough for only one day, but lasted for eight days until more oil could be made and consecrated (that’s kind of our fishes and loaves story).  We would light the Chanukah menorah (called a Hunnukiah) each night, and recite the prayers that express our love of God and our gratitude for the wonders that God has revealed throughout our history.  We would get a small present each of the eight nights, with the eighth night being a larger or more significant gift.

My parents didn’t believe in showering us with lots of expensive gifts, so we would get little things that we actually thought were really great.  I remember some of the little gifts more that the big ones, like a giant pen (pretty cool!), and a little character carved out of soap that would grow fuzzy soap hair from the moisture (awesome!).  Of course we would get Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins) and we would play dreydl for gelt.  My middle brother always had a way of winning all the gelt.

Chanukah is not a particularly religious or spiritual holiday.  Though it is very popular, particularly with the children, it is actually a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar.  It does not come from the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as do most of the more significant holidays (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover, etc).  It comes from later in Jewish history.

Chanukah has several meanings and stories about it.  The earliest is a celebration of victory in war.  In the second century B.C.E. Greek Assyrian King Antiochus, who ruled the land of Israel, decreed that the Jews could no longer observe their religion, but had to practice his Hellenistic religion.  So the Jews rose up in rebellion against Antiochus’ much larger and more powerful army, and with the blessing of God, defeated them at great odds.  When they returned to their homes they found that the great Temple in Jerusalem had been ransacked and desecrated by the enemy.  They wanted to rekindle the menorah lights that are to burn perpetually in the synagogue, but could only find enough consecrated (blessed and kosher) oil for one day.  It would take them eight days to make and consecrate more oil, and miracle of miracles, the oil lasted for eight days until the new oil was ready.

           Those are the two main themes of Chanukah – 1) the rebellion and victory for religious freedom, and 2) the miracle of the oil.  I have recently learned that these stories have evolved over time.  The ancient Rabbis believe that Chanukah might be eight days long because the Maccabees had missed the very important eight-day holiday of Sukkot (thanking God for the harvest) while they were away at war.

            One explanation of the miracle story is that it came into belief  later during the Roman Empire’s occupation.  The Greeks lost their power in the Middle East, and the Roman Empire was now in power.  The Roman government was much more powerful than the Greeks had been, but they allowed the Jews to continue their religious practices.  The Rabbis of that time didn’t want the Romans to think they were interested in rebellion, because it would surely be crushed, and there was no reason for rebellion.  They had freedom to practice Judaism, and for the most part they got along with the Roman government.  So the Rabbis created the story of the miracle of the oil to put a more spiritual meaning to Chanukah, to make it more about God, and less about war and rebellion.

Interestingly, the Dreydl harkens back to the rebellion.  During times of repression of Judaism, the Jews would play the game of dreydl as a “secret” Jewish practice.  There are four letters –Nun, Gimel, Hey and Shin - on the dreydl that mean “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or “A Great Miracle Happened There.”  By playing dreydl, the people could do something Jewish, but when the authorities would discover them playing dreydl, they could say, “it’s only a harmless game.”  Those rabble rousers!

The custom of giving gifts is a modern development dating back to Europe in the 17th century when Jews found themselves living in closer contact with Christian communities.  I’m sure the Jewish kids observed their Christian counterparts receiving gifts for Christmas, and asked, “Why don’t we get gifts?” So Jewish families started giving gifts for Chanukah.  Originally those gifts were the Chanukah gelt, but that evolved into the gift giving we have today.  Just like Christmas, there can be an over-commercialization of Chanukah.

            Today, my family tries to keep the holiday simple.  We light the menorah, say the prayers, give Tzedakah (donations to charity), tell the stories, give mostly simple gifts to our daughter and express what we are thankful for.  My daughter’s experience is very much like mine was as a child.  I too married a non-Jewish woman who converted to Judaism (her choice).  So she gets both holidays too.  We celebrate Chanukah and then she gets to go on to Christmas with her grandparents, my in-laws, who are Christian.  Of course the grandparents are not quite as modest in their gift giving as my wife and I are.  So... she gets the double-whammy of gifts.  What’s a modern Jewish family in a Christian society to do?

Bob Schneider is a musician/songwriter from Indianapolis, Ind.  He began playing professionally in 1975 at age 16. Most recently, he was the music director for Unity North Truth Center in Indianapolis for 5 years, and now is a musician and fourth-grade Sunday School teacher at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.  Bob returned to his Jewish roots in 2002 after many years away from Judaism, and quickly immersed himself in its practice and music.  Bob co-founded and plays percussion and performs vocals in IndyKlez, Indy's only professional Klezmer band.  He also recently joined Stone Martin, a blues, rock and soul band, in which he's featured on vocals, keyboards, and percussion.  By day, Bob works in the scrap metal business, buying, selling and shipping non-ferrous metals internationally.  Bob is married and has a 7 year old daughter.  He and his wife, Becky, adopted their daughter, Olga, from Novokuznyetsk, Russia in 2001.