A few weeks ago, a Jewish friend of mine shared a post about how people should stop referring to Chanukah as the “Jewish version of Christmas.” This is my slightly expanded response.
OK, I’m gonna tread very carefully here, because I get the point about Chanukah having been a minor holiday before it got swept up in the winter/Christmas craziness...but Christmas was also a minor holiday until it was not so coincidentally placed at the same time as the previously-existing winter celebrations...at which point it took on the trappings of those celebrations. So I feel the author’s pain.
Growing up, my hometown had a substantial enough Jewish population that there was a synagogue three blocks from my house, so I learned about the invasion of Judea, the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted for eight days from my very Irish kindergarten teacher, Miss Laughlin. Did we have a substantial population of Muslims or Hindus back in the 60s? Not that I know of; so there was no reason to learn about their holidays. And Kwanzaa wouldn’t exist for another five years.
But “the Jewish version of Christmas”? Sigh...I know what these people are trying to say, but they don’t get that they’re getting it totally wrong. Perhaps because they didn’t have Miss Laughlin to explain it to them. As a result, they’re trying to describe something else in terms of something they already understand, rather than on its own terms. And maybe sometimes you have to start with A before you can get to B. And maybe it’s not really, as the author suggests, a case of Christians wanting to define everything in their own terms. Let’s take sports for example. I’m no big sports fan, but because my daughters have played soccer, and I understand that, I understand basketball as “soccer with your hands” and hockey as “soccer on ice.” And yet, if your main point of comparison between Chanukah and Christmas is the gifts, then maybe your understanding of Christmas is flawed too.
As for the Holiday Season...well, it all depends on how you’re defining it. Are we talking about just the holidays I celebrate, just the ones my Jewish friends celebrate, or, as they say these days, “all the holidays”?
If #3, then the season includes Thanksgiving, Beethoven’s Birthday, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and whatever Muslim and Hindu holidays fall in that span. If #1, then it’s my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my sister’s birthday, and New Year’s. If #2, it may be Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and New Years.
But the other thing that so many people both within and outside of Christianity don’t get...and it’s a very important thing...is that Christmas is as much a cultural holiday as a religious one. As a result, there can be a tree in the city square and in the library without really violating the church/state separation…unless you’re really a stickler about anything with even a hint of The Feast of the Nativity to it. And it’s in the cultural part where we uncomfortably bump up against Chanukah.
We have an elephant in the room that we can’t ignore, and that will not be ignored. And yet, at the same time, we know that we have to acknowledge the other creatures in the room. How do we do that well? How do we do that gracefully? The answer to that will be different for each person who’s not with the elephant.
But also, because it’s such a cultural celebration, keeping those aspects of it strictly to ourselves seems sorta selfish. If I’ve made a little something for everyone else in my department, but skip you because you’re Jewish, is that respectful, or petty? Can I give you something because Christmas is when I give things, or do I have to shift the timing, and give you your gift for Chanukah?
It’s all very complicated, and becomes more complicated as more people from more cultures join this melting pot, mosaic, or whatever you want to call it. How do we respect everyone’s celebrations? How does the elephant react to being told that it’s not the only creature in the room?
Holy crap, is this ever complicated!
But…I’d like to wish all my Jewish friends a happy Chanukah…without which there might not even have been a Christmas at all.