Hanukkah is not ‘Jewish Christmas’: stop acting like it

Shirah Lister

Now that it’s December, we all get to forget about other cultures and listen to Christmas music, watch Christmas movies, eat Christmas themed food and buy Christmas themed items, and just generally assimilate. Growing up Jewish, I always felt like I was in a competition with Christians, trying to hype up Hanukkah the most I could to justify not celebrating Christmas. Now, I’ve realized that not only does Hanukkah rock, but because of the need to survive I and other Jews feel around December, Hanukkah has lost its original meaning.

Before we begin, gentiles must first understand a basic and underlying concept in almost every Jewish holiday: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. The story of Hanukkah goes: the Greeks tried to make us assimilate, we refused, so they tried to kill us, we survived, and now we eat.

Every winter, Jewish kids (and non-Christian kids in general) are surrounded by the ‘magic of Christmas.’ It seems as if, the second Halloween ends (or Thanksgiving if you have self control), Christmas has begun. So what do Jews do? We give kids the holiday they want. And just like that, Hanukkah became Christmas-adjacent. 

Hanukkah is a minor holiday. Despite that, it has managed to crawl its way to the forefront of American Jews’ hearts, becoming the poster holiday for Judaism. Menorahs are shown on government land to demonstrate ‘inclusion.’ The White House began an annual Menorah lighting. (Sidenote: what Jews light on Hanukkah is actually called a Chanukiah.) Stores sell cheap Hanukkah merch and gelt from at least 20 years ago. 

But that’s totally chill! It’s not like this holiday highlights not assimilating, right?

Don’t get me wrong, Hanukkah is an amazing holiday that commemorates survival and has delicious food. I understand why everyone loves it; we get presents, eat fried potatoes, and play games. But that’s it. The fact of the matter is, Jewish holidays are sad and come with reflection and baggage. They are difficult, they make you think, apologize, and of course have the added plus of food. But Hanukkah is the one holiday that doesn’t, which makes it an easy one for Jews to celebrate while feeling connected to their Jewish identity. So overhyping it and turning it into a Christmas-like celebration was the easiest thing we could do to encourage Jews to connect with Judaism without making them think too hard about past Jewish trauma.

The problem doesn’t lie in the overhyping of the holiday itself, but in the under-hyping of the traditions, history, and most importantly in a capitalist society, the swag. When I complain about Christmas being shoved down my throat, I’m also complaining about how all the swag that is sold to Jews for Hanukkah (aka sweaters that say ‘Happy Llamakah,’ which I own) is made by goyim who don’t know the first thing about Hanukkah, and don’t care.

Jewish holiday representation is just Christmas representation with a Star of David on it, and that is upsetting to me. Hanukkah, and Judaism, deserve better.

Yes, I love a mug that has catchy phrases like “Oy to the World” and “This is how we roll,” referring to dreidels (which spin). But those cheap items are a bit objectifying, and they don’t always satisfy my want for Jewish acknowledgement. There are dozens of talented Jewish artists who put out Hanukkah music, merch, and more. Think Daveed Diggs, Adam Sandler, Club Sofa, and others. So why would I listen to knock off versions of Christmas music, hoping for a tiny sliver of representation or even acknowledgement, when it has been right under my nose this entire time.

Furthermore, there are so many Jewish holidays (over 20, last time I checked), why choose Hanukkah to go all out for? What about Tu Bishvat, the celebration of trees. There are plenty of holidays that have that fun, celebration aspect (Purim, Rosh Hashanah, Passover) without proximity to Christianity, a religion that has historically not been our biggest fan. We don’t have to use Hannukah to assimilate.

The thing is, I am upset that we have made Hanukkah into what it is today. But there is no going back. So instead of trying to undo the past, let’s focus on all the cool swag made by Jews for Jews, and please, retire those ugly Hanukkah sweaters (which no one asked for).