The holidays are always interesting. It’s really the only time of year when a tremendous majority of the population focuses with monomaniacal ebullience on something that has almost no significance to a small but eminently vocal minority of Americans. Of course, I’m talking about the awkward confluence of Christmas and Hannukah.
I began thinking about this when I noticed for the first time the disappointed visages of my gentile friends and coworkers upon discovery that Hannukah is not, in fact, a big deal. “My dad wants gray socks,” I relayed to a friend. She could only muster the universal symbol of elegiac lament: the colon and opening parenthesis. Of course she knew that patriarchal gift requests hewed to a certain brand of utilitarian austerity, but surely some tools might fit the bill? A fishing rod? What about a nice sweater? She wanted more of my father’s Hannukah than my father did himself.
It’s not that I don’t understand the pathology of gentile Christmas guilt. We all know what it’s like to have a celebration dimmed by the stoic and merry averse. It’s why we tell our sick friends that alcohol kills the germs. And on the other hand, we all know what it’s like to be left out — the acute snubs of invitations unreceived and calls never placed. So it’s understandable then that the White House lights a menorah to recognize the least important Jewish holidays and I still have to take a vacation day on Yom Kippur, the day which theoretically determines whether I’ll live for another 365.
This isn’t meant as an invective on Hannukah. I love latkes, and though dreydel is essentially tantamount to rolling dice as a means of wealth redistribution, it’s something I’ve always fondly remembered. Still, it’s hard not wonder about some of the decidedly Christmas-like traditions. My mother reminded me that gelt (chocolate coin) dissemination has always been a Hannukah tradition, but still, I would be quite surprised to learn that Judah Maccabi had schlepped to the mall to pay retail in the middle of Christmas season. Indeed, some might point to the cognitive dissonance between the message of the holiday and the messaging of the holiday; eight nights of profligate present dispersal does not necessarily follow from the miracle that one day’s oil lasted a full eight.
Of course, I also don’t mean to impugn the practice of gift giving. The joy of giving is nice, and frankly, receiving isn’t so bad either. But there’s no real reason for the fusion of what happens to be the hallmark of Christmas with a perfectly fine holiday that occurs at roughly the same time. The adoption of such a practice denigrates Hannukah and suggests that in the deepest recesses of our souls, us Jews wish we had Christmas too. Not that there’s anything wrong with wishing we had Christmas, but the Jews are a proud people, and contriving an ersatz Christmas doesn’t precisely align with such a notion. This is part of the reason my father asked for socks.
I’m not sure whether this uneasiness permeates the Jewish community or whether it is mine alone, but there’s no reconciling the fact that to a large degree, Hannukah as commonly celebrated, is a contrivance. For me, this acknowledgment is accompanied by the distant and diffuse guilt so common to the Jewish experience. Six million Jews didn’t march to the gas chambers so I could marry a shiksa. But on the other hand, isn’t it the clannish and insular tendencies of the Jews that always leads to our discrimination?
The spectrum of American Jewry is fraught with peril. Too far to the left and you’ve forsaken your heritage. Too far the right and you’re alien even in your own country. The mainstream consensus of Hannukah as “Jewish Christmas,” echoes the parlous choice, reinforcing the distance some Jews feel while affirming to some Jews they are part of the fold. I suppose that the menorah on the White House lawn should be seen as a good thing, a sign of the open society we inhabit, but the looming juxtaposition between the size of the symbol and the insignificance of the holiday is also a reminder that no matter how open our society, Jews still live on the margins.
I know the holidays are supposed to be uplifting. This essay is hardly that, but it seems so much of the cross-holiday awkwardness stems from a genuine lack of understanding. Of course, I can’t ask that gentiles grasp something I myself struggle with, but in the meantime, please understand — and I say this with the greatest deference — we don’t want Christmas. It’s OK, we’ll be fine without it. And fellow Jews, enjoy your movie.