Monday, December 24, 2012

Taking back Hanukkah

Whew, such a busy couple weeks. I now have 400 unread posts of yours in my Reader, and haven't posted much lately. I have also been trying to figure out what I want to say about Hanukkah. It's over now, but I figure better late than never. Last year, I had this to say about Hanukkah as a "major" holiday:
Hannukah is one of several non biblical holidays which celebrate more recent (relatively) events in Jewish history. Since they are mandated by rabbis, not God himself, and don't have a prohibition on work, these are generally not considered major holidays. Hannukah is widely practiced, not sure whether this is because its close to Christmas or because its fun and easy. 
First, some background: I don't speak for all Jews on this, but I love Christmastime. I like winter (well, what passes for winter in Houston- aka, the lack of sweat), I like hot cocoa. I like Christmas songs on the radio. I like cookies and the abundance of peppermint. And I like the "Christmas spirit" where people donate to charity and say "Merry Christmas" when you check out at the grocery and whatever. I like it. I'm not the least big offended by being told "Merry Christmas." I have no problem with people loudly and proudly celebrating their major holiday.

But what I am increasingly bothered by is that people seem to substitute having heard of Hanukkah for knowing anything about Jews. People think that saying "Happy Holidays" is conflated with having cultural sensitivity, taking all the legwork out of actually learning about the "other" in their midst.The real Hanukkah is nothing huge. You eat some fried foods, you light some candles, and then you move on with your day. (Notice there's no presents in there, although perhaps there is some money gifted to children.) If it wasn't so close to Christmas, no non-Jews would know about it.

Compare to all of the major Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot. How many people actually know what or when those are, and what we're supposed to do for them? And then some other minor holidays: Purim, Simchat Torah, Lag B'omer... Anyone? Nope.
So why Hanukkah? Here's my postulate: American "Hanukkah" was, in fact, invented not by Jews but by people who celebrate Christmas.

The pervasiveness of Christmas in American culture has had the effect of highlighting those who do not celebrate Christmas. And while many who are not religious get all caught up in the Christmas spirit as a secular celebration of family and togetherness and pine trees(?), the Jews have always stood apart. The one dark house on the block not lit up with twinkle lights, prancing reindeer and Santa Claus in a blow up snow globe. The one with the tiny, "sad" electric menorah in the front window- eight nights, nine lights, then it disappears until next year. The person who you shouldn't say "Merry Christmas" to, because they might get offended.

So what do we do? We invent the War on Christmas. Those giant present decorations in front of the mall? Those aren't Christmas presents, they're Holiday presents, for Hanukkah too! Those decorations, they're not Christmas decorations, some are blue and white, so they're clearly Holiday decorations. And we won't say Merry Christmas anymore, but Happy Holidays. That way everyone is included! And those who would accidentally say something so offensive as "Merry Christmas" to a Jewish person, can now go about their day smug in their knowledge that they were inclusive, and sensitive to the Jews who have a holiday to celebrate too.

Only it's a tiny holiday. That has nothing to do with giving presents. And it's not a big decorating holiday, despite how every store tries to encourage the Hanukkah bush or strings of little "Star of David" lights so even Jews can participate in the fun of holiday decorating. Hanukkah has been stolen from us, to make everyone else feel more politically correct. Much like American Christmas has only a passing resemblance to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, this American spectacle of Hanukkah is a completely different beast from that actual holiday with which it shares it's name.

So I've decided to start a movement. I'm taking back Hanukkah. I won't let it be the figurehead for inclusiveness anymore, just because it conveniently falls next to a holiday you were going to deck the malls for anyways. If you want to be culturally sensitive, keep your "Merry Christmas" in December... but in the middle of September next year, tell a Jew you know "Happy Holidays" (or better yet, Happy New Year) We'll be right in the midst of our big, busy holiday season (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, which all fall within a month) and we will be happy to hear it!

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