Deck the halls with chanukiahs!

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With its turkey, tinsel, and trees, no Christian holiday seems to fascinate Jews more than Christmas. The promise of pudding and presents captures our imagination. With the commercialisation and proliferation of Christmas growing every year, bearded Santa Claus starts to look more like a rabbi to some, albeit sporting an unconventional red gaberdine.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Dec 12, 2019

With Chanukah falling at the same time (this year starting three days before Christmas), it’s little wonder that the two festivals have developed a curious relationship, even inspiring a pop culture following in the form of the portmanteau holiday, Chrismukkah.

Though they couldn’t be more different, their overlap has generated a rich culture that is not actually a millennial creation, but one which goes back centuries.

Every year, Christmas falls on 25 December of the solar calendar, with Chanukah also falling on the 25th of the month – but of the Hebrew month of Kislev. However, by the time the events of the Gospels took place, Jews had been celebrating their holiday for almost two centuries already, commemorating the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the ruling Hellenistic Greek empire of the time.

Although the two holidays were celebrated at the same time, Jews were initially wary of Christmas. According to Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, the author of A Kosher Christmas, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe once feared Christmas-time, a reflection of how they felt about their status in society.

“In Eastern Europe, Jews weren’t very assimilated,” Plaut told Vox in 2018. “Christmas was a night of possible pogroms and violence, with so many celebrants, often drunk, going from house to house. Jews didn’t go to the synagogue to study. They stayed at home for safety reasons.”

However, in Western Europe, notably after the French Revolution, Jews were more assimilated. For the Jewish elite, holiday symbols such as the Christmas tree signified secular inclusion in society. As Plaut explains, these Jews had more freedom to ask questions like, “Do I bring a Christmas tree into my home? Do I have a holiday meal? Do I give out gifts?” In fact, affluent German Jews often posed for portraits in front of elaborately decorated Christmas trees, even bringing them into their own homes.

Viennese socialite Fanny Arnstein was among the first Jews to introduce a Christmas tree into the home, as was early Zionist Theodor Herzl, who had a Christmas tree in his salon and recorded in his journal in 1895 that he met Vienna’s chief rabbi with the tree in full view. In Berlin, Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas “with roast goose or hare, a decorated Christmas tree” and featured “an aunt who played the piano and treated our cook and servant to Silent Night.”

The Christmas following amongst Jews grew, with some Jews celebrating Christmas as a secular festival without religious meaning or transferring Christmas customs to the Chanukah festival. In fact, 19th century German Jews developed Weihnukkah, a combination of Weihnachten (Christmas in German) and Chanukah. The extent of the crossover is shown in the Jewish Museum of Berlin’s exhibit on the subject, which features a vintage picture combining an image of a menorah and a Christmas tree. In reality, Weihnukkah never had a colossal following, and just about disappeared when Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany.

With time, Christmas began to change from essentially a religious to a secular national holiday, particularly in America. The process was accelerated by commercialisation. With Christmas presents beginning to loom larger, Jewish parents, not wanting their children to feel deprived, took to giving their children gifts at Chanukah.

American Jewish families also hosted their own celebrations on the night of 24 December, some of them giving balls and banquets and developing their own traditions, including supping on Chinese food on Christmas Eve. Even Jewish songwriters became involved, with many iconic Christmas carols, from The Christmas Song to Silver Bells being written by Jews, such songs de-emphasising the religious aspects and celebrating family and simple pleasures.

As celebrations became more centred on presents, grand meals, and general festivity, the perception of two very different holidays began to merge in popular thought once again, and the spirit of the earlier German hybrid holiday once more came to the fore.

Weihnukkah has been revived in our time with the creation of Chrismukkah, a term which found its way into pop culture in the early 2000s. In 2003, the popular television series The O.C.’s character, Seth Cohen, who came from a multifaith Jewish and Christian household, decided to combine Christmas and Chanukah instead of choosing to celebrate both festivals separately or only one of them. Chrismukkah was thus coined, and the hybrid holiday re-introduced into the world.

As writer Julia Métraux points out, The O.C. continued to have annual Chrismukkah episodes until the series was cancelled, generating its own traditions along the way. These included the creation of a “yamaclaus”, a yarmulke designed to match Santa Claus’ clothing, and the appearance of a Chanukiah above Christmas stockings on the mantelpiece.

Chrismukkah went beyond the silver screen very quickly, and as with all holidays, became considerably commercialised. In 2004, Chrismukkah.com was launched by Ron and Michelle Gompertz, a Jewish-Christian intermarried couple in Montana in the United States. The site sold humorous Chrismukkah greeting cards, peddled detailed mythology about the fictional holiday, and ultimately drew considerable criticism from Christian and Jewish religious authorities alike for “insulting” religious tradition.

In December 2004, Chrismukkah was listed in Time magazine as one of the buzzwords of the year, was reportedly added to the authoritative Chambers dictionary, and in 2006, was described by USA Today as the “newest faux holiday that companies are using to make a buck this season”.

Many American Jews and non-Jews alike continue to celebrate it as an ironic, alternative holiday, continuously developing hybrid customs drawn from Christian and Jewish traditions. For those who prefer not to mix cultures, American Jews have also carved out a place for Chanukah as a standalone holiday in pop culture, with comedians like Jon Lovitz and Adam Sandler creating sketches and songs to perpetuate the Chanukah spirit in the modern age.

Ultimately, there’s something for everybody to celebrate this December, whether you’re an adherent of Santa, Satmar, or something in between.

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