No, Virginia, Judah Maccabee Doesn’t Do Presents

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14 Dec 2006

Only adults of a certain age can remember when department stores waited until after Thanksgiving to put up their Christmas displays. Not so today. Not in the land of CalendarWarp where Halloween comes in August, Easter arrives in February (mid-month, two days after the Valentine candy, which has been displayed long before Ground Hog Day, goes on sale), and every month brings a new cultural awareness to celebrate.

I understood when Christian friends growled that the true meaning of Christmas was getting lost amidst store displays. Christmas is about the birth of Christianity’s Savior. The buy-buy-buy hype had little to do with the holiness of the day. Personally, I dreaded the hooplah because a world decked with holly and prancing reindeer seems to say, “America’s true colors aren’t red, white, and blue, but red and green.” One month of feeling out of step is bearable. Four months is aggravating to the point of feeling completely sidelined.

And then somewhere along the way, the retail machine got wise. Colorful menorah banners began popping up in card stores. Banks urged customers to start their Chanukah gift accounts NOW! And then one year, I walked into Bed Bath and Beyond and right there by the front door was a Chanukah display big as Mount Sinai: menorahs, dreidels, festive tablecloths with matching napkins, boxed greeting cards, sleek blue and white candles, not the Sunday School kind that come in red, orange, and that ghastly olive green. I was thrilled. Finally, acceptance! America knows we exist! And then I felt taken. It was, I realized, early October. Acceptance shmacceptance. Chanukah sells.

There is a Jewish concept — hiddur mitzvah. The idea behind it is to beautify the sensory experience of performing any given ritual. Ergo the explosion of Judaica as art form — hand painted menorahs, filigreed silver dreidels, fanciful Seder plates. But dish towels? And strings of blue and white lights? Madison Avenue had hijacked my holiday to make a buck and while I liked the feeling of having a store recognize Christians aren’t the only shoppers in the world, I was uncomfortable seeing Chanukah commercialized to such an extent that customers (Jewish and Christian) might think stringing twinkly blue and white bulbs is a legit Jewish way of celebrating the Festival of Lights. What? To put on our Chanukah bush? Around the front door so Judah Maccabee can find his way through the mail slot? There’s a difference between beautifying ritual and doing as the Romans do so much that we draft our neighbors’ traditions as our own.

Now here’s something I never learned in Sunday School. The Maccabees weren’t only fighting King Antiochus, whose army had desecrated the Temple. The Maccabees were also fighting the Jewish Hellenizers, Jews who had jettisoned their own heritage for the customs of non-Jews. They battled to preserve their own heritage, and were mighty hot and bothered that fellow Jews had capitulated to the culture at large. Chanukah is about miracle oil and it is also about the dignity of maintaining who we are.

My kids asked for a tree once or twice. Instead we made latkes, hung their Chanukah art projects with great fanfare, and eventually built a Sukkah for us to decorate. In a nod to their mom’s Southern heritage, it’s strung with Coca Cola lights each fall. We draw very strong lines between what’s ours and what belongs to the outside culture. And in addition to drawing the line, we work hard to fill our side up with legitimate Jewish expressions of joy. So I bought the tablecloth with the matching napkins. Got one for my step-mom, too. But I left the lights alone. Madison Avenue might not understand the difference. But I do. And our kids will, too.

© 1993 Debra B. Darvick reprinted with permission of the author. Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered from or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.