’Tis the season to be jolly, which means that retailers everywhere are breaking out their best seasonal wares, whether it’s ugly Christmas sweaters or mammoth Rudolphs for your front lawn. Traditionally, we American Jews have looked at these rites of commerce with an air of bemusement, grateful that our wintertime holiday required nothing more complicated than a small and tasteful menorah. But lately, the ghost of Christmas commerce is haunting us, too.
An earlier version of this article stated that Ethiopian Jews had been carrying Hanukkah traditions for centuries. In fact, Ethiopian Jews only began observing Hanukkah in the 1970s, after the community started migrating to Israel, though they did read a version of the Book of Maccabees, which tells the holiday’s story.
On a recent trip to a large retailer, we spotted the following abominations: a festive tray featuring four minuscule bearded dudes, their hats decorated with dreidels, above the phrase “Rollin’ With My Gnomies”; a throw pillow, in the blue-and-white color scheme of the Israeli flag, stitched with the phrase “Oy to the World”; an assortment of elves, sporting Jewish stars and looking like they belonged more in a Brooklyn yeshiva than anywhere near the North Pole; and a set of three kitchen towels with the truly baffling wording, “Peace Love & Latkes.”
We have absolutely nothing against the practice of cultural appropriation. We’re guilty of it ourselves: Flip through any Jewish cookbook, and you’ll see traces of the spices and herbs we picked up from different parts of the world before once again getting expelled. We’ve also shared with the world our own cultural assets, like monotheism and Natalie Portman. It makes us kvell when something profoundly and fundamentally Jewish gets embraced by the world at large. Nothing makes us happier than, say, strolling through the airport in Boise and seeing a bagel shop with a distinctly Jewish name selling a jalapeño bacon bagel with reduced fat salsa schmear — it’s our gift to America. Y’all are welcome.
But weird bagels are one thing. Hanukkah becoming Christmas is another.
The holiday we celebrate more or less around the same time as the Yuletide isn’t “the Jewish Christmas.” In terms of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, it wouldn’t even crack the top five. Hanukkah doesn’t hold a candle to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the fall or Passover in the spring. It’s neither a fast nor an epic feast. Its proximity to Christmas is probably the most marketable aspect of Hanukkah, a holiday specifically designed not to appeal to the masses.
Hanukkah, after all, is a commemoration of an ancient uprising by a band of bearded zealots, the Maccabees, who took arms not only against the oppressive Greeks — but also against their fellow Jews who happily assimilated into the cosmopolitan culture of the day. Sure, the holiday has taken on a few embellishments over the years, like eight nights of presents, concessions to make sure our kinderlach don’t feel left out when you-know-who comes sliding down the chimney. But at its core, Hanukkah is about celebrating our Jewish particularity, relishing our differences from the wider world. The commercialized Christmas creep, the repackaging of Hanukkah to fit the gingerbread cookie cutter mold, is precisely the sort of stuff those Maccabees were fighting. The entire point of Hanukkah is that it’s not Christmas.
These days, of course, commerce may not be the only motivation for merchants hawking Christmas-y Hanukkah wares. Some of the marketing (and the Hallmark movies) seems to be attempting a sort of cultural sensitivity, an inclusivity, the kind that leads people to say “Happy Holidays.” But what we Jews want is respect for particularity — yours, and ours. That’s why we’ll gladly wish you a “Merry Christmas,” and even partake in the occasional eggnog. We celebrate difference and appreciate public displays of religiosity. So wish us a “Happy Hanukkah” (if we’re being honest, “merry” does sound, well, goyish). Don’t assume we’ll be offended because we’re a minority. We love having our own thing. And we don’t suffer from stocking stuffer envy. We appreciate nothing more than someone taking a moment to learn about our tradition, so if you drop a line about the Maccabees or the miracle of the little tin of oil that lasted eight nights, we promise you a latke.
And when we say “our tradition,” we really mean “our traditions.” Jews all celebrate the same core holiday, but those of us who hail from the Middle East, say, have holiday treats of their own, and Ethiopian Jews (relative newcomers to the holiday’s rituals) have nonetheless deeply engaged with the historical account of the Maccabees for centuries, and all of them make the holiday, and Judaism itself, that much more beautifully diverse. We’re not all Ashkenazi Jews straight out of the eastern European shtetl — just another reason items like the “Dancing Bubbe,” a stereotypical Yiddishe mama doll from the makers of the Mensch on a Bench, who squawks in a “Jewish” accent and shakes her booty when you press a button, are so disappointing. We come in all colors, and our differences only make what we have in common more profound, as is the case in any warm and loving family.
But finally, and most urgently, this plea: Enough with the Christmas-y looking Hanukkah swag. We beg of you. Keep the elves and the jollies and the funny caps. We don’t need them in our holiday. No Jew has ever gazed longingly at a 12-foot inflatable reindeer and wished in her heart she had an equally large Moses to display in front of her house. And if we want an outfit to wear on special occasions, all we have to do is reach into the closet and pull out our tallis, or prayer shawl. Unusual garments, we’ve got. Accessories, too. Just wait until you see our tefillin.
So, friends, a very merry Christmas from us to you. And may this year bring us nothing more than an abundance of blessings and a dearth of hideous cheap tchotchkes.