I often wonder why Jews worry so much about Christmas. True, the holiday is overwhelming, invading almost every nook and cranny of America outside of Boro Park and Kiryas Joel. But in all my years of being a rabbi, no Jew has ever reported to me a desire to abandon Jewish life and embrace Christianity because of the lure of Christmas.
Perhaps we are simply annoyed at being reminded how much of a minority we are in the United States (less than 3%). Perhaps we are a little envious of the enthusiasm with which the spirit of the season is embraced, even by non-Christians. Or perhaps we are attracted by all the fa-la-la and shrubbery, and overreact to compensate.
One way we overreact is by making Chanukkah something it isn’t. I do not refer to gift-giving (I abandoned that campaign a long time ago – talk about shouting into the wind!). I mean trying to make the message of Christmas fit the message of Chanukkah – which it doesn’t. Obviously, the celebration of the birth of Jesus does not fit Chanukkah no matter how hard we try, but the notion of “peace on earth, good will toward men” is the square peg we try to hammer into Chanukkah’s round hole. Chanukkah is not a holiday of peace and pluralism.
The Festival of Lights celebrates the victory of the forces of fundamentalism (the Maccabees) over the forces of acculturation (the Hellenistic Jews and their Greco-Syrian patrons). It recounts the aftermath of civil war among the Jews, when God’s favor again rested on the Temple because the ultra-right-wing religious folk purged and then repressed the influence of the liberal accommodationist folk. Of all our holidays, it carries the most particular and least universal message.
Don’t fret too much. Two hundred years after the first Chanukkah, Jewish leaders were already uncomfortable with the message and began to revise it. But this much remains of the original: it is a holiday which cautions us against imitating the ways of others and pretending to make them our own.
So celebrate Chanukkah with gusto – candles, fried foods, family gatherings, some tzedakah and a few gifts; have a great time. But let Christians celebrate Christmas without our concern or appropriation. That means Jewish homes should not have the trappings of Christmas. But enjoy the delight our neighbors take in their holy and joyous season, and give this small amount of thanks: it’s easier to clean up wax drippings than to find all those errant pine needles in the living room.