Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas” many of us have been treating it like.
How did we get to making Hanukkah synonymous with Christmas? Is it really just because they’re within the same month?
I spoke with Jack W., a local healthcare worker that practices Judaism, and they shared their understanding of Hanukkah’s origins and evolution as a holiday.
“There’s not really much in the history of Hanukkah to go with gift giving, but I think that our society — especially over the 1900s in American society — made Hanukkah into a parallel to Christmas,” Jack said.
Even though gift-giving has become a commonplace Hanukkah practice, it hasn’t lost its history. In fact, some use the holiday to bring forward tenets of Judaism that surrounding generosity.
Jack talked about some additional Jewish history, going into a portion of the Talmud that details the importance of lighting candles at Hanukkah and the lopsided battle between the Maccabees and the Greeks.
The Maccabees miraculously won after their temple was destroyed, only to find that they had just enough olive oil to last for one night when rededicating their new one.
While varying versions, interpretations, and theories are discussed by scholars and historians, the agreed upon portion of the story is that a miracle occurred — the small amount of oil burned for eight nights instead of one, leaving enough time for the Maccabees to find a new source.
“The mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lamps is very dear,” a section of the Talmud reads, emphasizing the importance of celebrating the holiday, even though it isn’t one of the Jewish High Holy Days.
“Even if a person has no resources for food except [what he receives] from charity, he should pawn or sell his garments and purchase oil and lamps to kindle them [in fulfillment of the mitzvah].”
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, scholar in residence at the UJA-Federation of New York, told TIME Magazine that “It’s important to recognize that it is an American Jewish phenomenon, this gift-giving that’s part of Hanukkah,”
“It’s not historically part of Hanukkah at all.”
Jack reflected on how their understanding of the holiday’s purpose shifted over time as they learned more about the history.
“I think back to when I was a child and I had an expectation about Hanukkah: you’re going to light candles and you’re gonna get gifts for eight days. I got older and I realized that’s far from what the holiday is actually about,” they began.
“It’s a commemoration of winning a war, and that the miracle of coming back and the oil lasting…when you think about it as if you are celebrating a war victory, that makes you feel a little differently.”
According to Dianne Ashton, PhD, professor of American Studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, Hanukkah was made to look more like Christmas within the US in the late 19th century.
Despite being a more “modest” celebration in other parts of the world, Creditor said later in his interview that he believes this shift was meant to spark joy rather than mimic Christmas.
Some say that the practice of gift giving began in the 18th century, coming from the Greeks entirely.
Other examples of these convergences include using dreidels as a clever way to avoid persecution and teach Jewish children their history and using foreign coins as Hanukkah “gelt” beginning around the 18th century as well.
Some that practice Judaism understand all of these elements to be true.
For example, Jack cites commentary on The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays by Irving Greenberg.
In his book, Greenberg discusses how Jewish folks and historians believe that Hanukkah celebrations have always been a compilation of Judaism and dominant culture.
This means that throughout history, Hanukkah has always mirrored the environment of the Jews that were in celebration rather than there being a cut-and-dry way to acknowledge the holiday.
One important facet of the Jewish faith is the principle of tzedakah, which translates to charitable donation, charitable giving, or justice.
Within Judaism this is understood to be just something that is done, rather than something “extra” — there’s no bonus points for sharing what you have with others.
“If you think about mutual aid and how you are giving to other people, but you’re not looking at it as if you feel sorry for them and you’re giving them charity. It’s about solidarity and respect.”
“Tzedakah is the concept of giving resources to other people but in an equitable way,” Jack said.
While gift-giving has now become a standard part of Hanukkah celebrations, there’s no rule about having to lean-in to the oft dollar sign-focused purchases of other December holidays.
Tzedakah can be monetary gifts or time, which means that even folks without disposable income can participate.
How can your giving truly benefit someone else? Are you making the best of the resources or skills available to you?
“To find new meanings and to create new rituals that have significance to people — in the context of the time that they exist,” Jack said,
“I think that’s what’s important — adaptability of people over time,” they said.
Everything has an origin, and it’s okay if the way things look present-day don’t match up to their beginnings.
It’s also okay if you have cultures within your home that collide — many experts say that’s how we got to this current iteration of Hanukkah.
If you’re not sure where to focus your energy this Hanukkah, consider what you have and what others may need, and what you can feasibly offer. Remember — this doesn’t need to be monetary.
“One way to look at Hanukkah gift giving in modern times is to think of this idea of tzedakah and about what you can do for other people,” Jack said.
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