A true story: years ago, I chaperoned a delegation of teens to a conference whose participants represented the youth leadership of their various organizations. All told, there were perhaps 200 Jewish teenagers staying in a single hotel. I was in the sundry shop when I overheard the cashier talking with a representative from one of the other groups. The conversation, almost verbatim, was as follows:
“You kids are all Jewish?” the cashier asked.
“Yup,” the student replied.
“And when do you all celebrate Christmas?” she continued.
“December 26,” he quipped, deadpan.
The cashier thought about this for a moment before replying, “I’m okay with that. Differences are good.”
To a Jewish person, this might seem laughable. “How foolish! Everyone knows that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas!” Yet from a Christian or secular perspective, it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. Christmas is ubiquitous in this country. Banks, schools and post offices are closed. If everyone you know celebrates Christmas, including the Federal government, why would you assume that Jews don’t? (A quick quiz: Do Hindus go trick-or-treating? Do Muslims eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Do Mormons barbecue on Independence Day? You don’t know, do you?)
So if it’s not unreasonable to assume that Jews might actually celebrate Christmas, it’s a much smaller leap for people to look at the Chanukah lights and gift-giving and assume that Chanukah must be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Of course we know that such is not the case; let us examine some of the similarities and differences.
Before we do that, a fascinating fact: it may surprise readers to learn that, in a sense, Christmas is the oldest holiday in existence. The Talmud in tractate Avodah Zarah (8a) says that when Adam saw the days getting shorter for the first time, he assumed that the world was ending as a consequence of his sin. He fasted and prayed for eight days until the winter solstice, after which he observed that the days were getting longer again and he realized that such is the nature of the world. Adam subsequently made an eight-day festival of the time he spent fasting and praying. The Gemara calls this holiday Saturnura, though you probably know it better as Saturnalia, the Roman solstice celebration.
So what does Saturnalia have to do with Christmas? Well, while Christmas ostensibly celebrates the birth of Jesus, Christianity has no real theological or historical tradition as to when Jesus was born. The celebration was fixed to coincide with Saturnalia and other winter solstice holidays (such as the pagan Yule), a time when potential converts would already be celebrating, making for an easier transition. So, according to Jewish tradition, the Biblical Adam established the holiday that later evolved into Christmas. And, just as the various solstice celebrations commemorate the return of the light, Chanukah – our “festival of lights” – occurs as the darkest point in the year, when such light is most needed.
So both holidays occur in December. Well, kind of. Chanukah actually occurs in the month of Kislev. Thanks to Judaism’s lunisolar calendar, Chanukah can be as early as Thanksgiving and as late as New Year’s. But yes, in most years Chanukah generally falls around Christmas, maybe a week earlier. And this is not particularly significant. It’s far more significant that Easter is almost always the Sunday of Passover – which makes sense given that the Easter story takes place on Passover – yet no one posits Passover as “the Jewish Easter.” (And it’s not like one couldn’t build a case if so inclined: “Instead of colored eggs, Jews hide the afikoman….”)
Lights are important to both holidays. On Chanukah, we light the menorah to commemorate the victory over the Syrian-Greeks, enabling us to reclaim the Temple, which then necessitated the miracle of the oil. While Christmas lights don’t much resemble a menorah, another custom does and perhaps you’ve seen it. Rather than copious multicolored lights, some houses place a single candle burning in each window. (Nowadays this would more likely be a candle-shaped lightbulb.) This practice dates back to the persecution of Irish Catholics by English Protestants. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Catholicism was banned and penalties for violators could even include death. At Christmas time, Irish Catholic families would hope for a priest to come by in order to administer the sacraments, in exchange for which the cleric would receive a hot meal and a place to sleep. The candles in the windows were the sign of a welcoming Catholic home. So again we see superficial similarities but with very different origins and significances.
The most obvious area of overlap between Chanukah and Christmas is the gift-giving. It is fairly obvious that our Chanukah gift-giving practice has been informed by cultural proximity to Christmas, but such is not its origin. The practice to give gifts of money – “Chanukah gelt” – is an ancient tradition, approved of by the great rabbis of previous generations. There are different opinions as to its ultimate source but many believe that the practice originated because the Talmud tells us (Shabbos 22a) that we may not use the Chanukah lights to count coins. The custom therefore arose to give children coins to teach them how to use and not use the light of the menorah. From there, the custom morphed into gifts rather than cash. (Happily, despite the practice of gift-giving, Chanukah has generally avoided the materialism and conspicuous consumption that many complain plague Christmas.)
Many things in this world superficially resemble other things. Purim arguably resembles Halloween. Palm Sunday resembles Succos (though, as with Easter and Passover, there are underlying thematic connections between the two). Sefirah and Lent resemble one another. Arbor Day resembles Tu b’Shevat (though does anybody really care about Arbor Day anymore?). There are a limited number of human experiences, and expressions of faith and gratitude, so it makes sense that every once in a while there are going to be similarities between the practices of different groups.
While Chanukah is certainly an important holiday, it is nowhere near as important as the Biblical Festivals of Passover, Succos and Shavuos. Furthermore, other holidays of rabbinic origin, like Purim and Tisha b’Av, are nowhere near as well-known as Chanukah. It’s clear that Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas has given it a big boost over other equally-deserving Jewish occasions. At first glance it may seem ironic that the holiday celebrating the Jews’ triumph over assimilation is the most popular largely because it’s perceived by so many as “Jewish Christmas.” Upon reflection, however, we see that it’s actually quite appropriate. For generations Chanukah has been observed by many families as the last vestige of a Judaism otherwise lost to them. Chanukah has been the thing that kept them connected to Judaism and enabled just one more generation to know they were Jewish. Many of these people later found their way back into the fold. The popularity of Chanukah has actually helped to stem the tide of assimilation.
Christmas is Christmas and Chanukah is Chanukah, and never the twain shall meet. A woman I know once told me that she celebrated “Jewish Christmas.” When I asked her if she was referring to Chanukah, she clarified that she had a day off from work on which she would order Chinese food and watch Netflix. Rather than Chanukah, which is a completely different holiday, Chinese food and a movie is the real “Jewish Christmas.”