A slice-in-time contemporary survey analysis by three Israeli academics at Stanford showing that Hannukah achieved its popularity with many American Jews use Hanukkah as a way to provide their children with an exciting alternative to Christmas, entitled “Is Hannukah Responsive to Christmas?” highlighted in a recent Rosner blog, ignores how Jews actually influenced the American Christmas that Hannukah is thought to be competing with. Its a classic case of association being mistaken for causality.
Jews don’t have to stay off the streets on Christmas Eve anymore and create devices like Nitel Night celebrated by some Hasidim. This little known Jewish custom with some decidedly resentful Kabbalistic overtones was thought to be created because Anti-Semites would ambush Jews, as they were going to or coming from a House of Learning, and savagely beat them, sometimes even killing them, in the streets on Christmas Eve. Thus, Hasidic rabbis decreed that Torah Study was counterproductive on that night and Jews should remain at home that night and not wander in the streets.
My son, Joey, who had just starred in his extracurricular off-Broadway Temple Emanuel Academy Day School Gesher/Kindergarten musical as Shrek, longingly looked at green striped Shrek candy canes at the Smart & Final checkout set out at his eye level. When I refused his request by saying the confection symbolized Christmas and we don’t celebrate it, he looked around at some of the other waiting shoppers, a few attired with Christmas regalia, and asked: “Why is Christmas so popular?”
Demographer that I am, I explained that the word “popular” comes from the Latin term populi meaning people and it just means that more people celebrate it than celebrate our Hannukah because there are less Jews.
History buffs may know that Christmas in the U.S. wasn’t popular at all until the 1820 - 1880 waves of Catholic immigrants arrived and Christmas wasn’t strongly associated with gifting to each other, even among the Catholics. The 1857 Jingle Bells song was still associated with Thanksgiving in it’s heated war with Christmas.
Jews continued to celebrate Hannukah in the traditional way with menorah candles in their home windows for all to see during the eight days of Hannukah. Candles, expensive items at the time, migrated as adornment to Christmas trees in the 18th century. Only during the 1880s did they come into use more widely, often in schools, inns and stores.
Jewish peddlers graduated from walking to customers with a backpack, to riding to customers in wagons. Later as stores could be opened, the customers came to Jewish established stores. Finally Jews used the earnings from the stores to create a new type of commercial establishment by inventing the department store.
As Jewish retailers were pioneering the department store commerce, predictable customer traffic had to be built up. The Jewish tradition of the Talmud study, specifically tractate Avodat Zarah, which encourages familiarity with the holidays of the non-Jews in order to avoid commerce that could benefit “idol worship.” Being attuned to non-Jewish celebrations of all types, the themes and theology were naturally analyzed as to their relevance for commerce.
Some hints of the themes of the existing American proto-Christmas may have been buttressed in the service of commerce. Altruistic giving resonates with the central Jewish value of Chesed, as does the meme “Good will towards all men.” The popularization of a bearded Santa Claus with a fur hat, somewhat reminiscent of the embarrassing bearded and stubbornly ethnic costumed Jewish coreligionists from the Old Country. Rather than a bishop’s miter, department stores made Santa into a figure on whose lap you could confess your wants to, rather than your sins.
Commercialized Christmas advertising art, popular Tin Pan Alley Christmas tunes, often designed, composed, written and performed by Jews emphasized the gifting and Chesed elements of the Christmas which are familiar today. Catholic and Protestant clergy of the time loudly decried the commercialization of Christmas as some do today, though somewhat more softly, being fearful, along with rabbis and imams, of being labeled as a Grinch by their adherents.
Establishment of the American style Christmas may have become the Eighth Noahide Law spreading to non-Christian Asia, the Middle East and Africa. This Christmas implicitly incorporates in its spread the Jewish value of Chesed, selfless loving-kindness, in societies where it may not be culturally emphasized or native.
It was only natural that Jews adapted and adopted a tradition that we were central to popularizing among non-Jews. Stanford economists Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi perhaps gave free rein to the familiar Israeli disdain of “assimilating” American Jews and assumed causality in their title “Is Hannukah Responsive to Christmas?” A more correct title for them would have been “Is Christmas Responsive to Hannukah?
Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography, Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work, Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is immediate past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: firstname.lastname@example.org To follow Pini on Twitter: Follow @pinih
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