For an inter-faith household, the ever-controversial Christmas-Hannukah hybrid is a perfect way to honour both parents ’traditions.
Here’s a little secret about the holidays that us Jews tend to keep to ourselves—Hanukkah kinda sucks.
Oh sure, you get a gift for each of the eight days, dreidel is basically kiddie roulette and potato latkes are super yum. But the holiday is a historical bust—if not for its proximity to Christmas, we wouldn’t pay this minor miracle much mind. (Oh, and that proximity is also the only reason we get gifts, a recent addition to tradition.)
As with the best Jewish holiday, Passover, our ancestors overthrew their oppressors—in this case, Greek-run Syria. Judah Maccabee led a religious insurgency between 167–164 B.C. (albeit one begun as a Jewish civil war between fundamentalists and assimilationists) that eventually saw Hebrew holy warriors reclaim Jerusalem, only to discover merely one day’s worth of holy oil remained in the temple. But that measly amount burned for eight days, the amount of time it took to press and purify more. That’s the miracle—The Festival of Lights essentially celebrates our ancestors getting a great deal on oil.
Hanukkah isn’t even a part of the Old Testament. The rebellion is recounted in the Books of the Maccabees, part of the non-canonical scriptures known as the Apocrypha that Jews banished back in the day but remain largely accepted by Catholic and Orthodox Churches (hence noted anti-Semite Mel Gibson’s plans to make a Maccabee movie).
Compare that to biblical Bonnaroo that is Passover, which tells the story of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. It goes from the Jews’ enslavement to Moses floating down the Nile and being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter to the burning bush, 10 plagues, parting of the Red Sea and the Ten Commandments. Not to mention the epilogue where, after 40 punishing years wandering in the desert, God gives them the Promised Land. These are some serious miracles.
Christmas only has the one miracle, but the virgin birth of the son of God is a biggie—after all, they did name the whole religion after the dude—and when paired with a jolly, gift-giving, sleigh-riding secular Santa Claus, it’s pretty much unbeatable.
Now, I grew up as one of the only Jews in the village, so it would’ve been cruel and unusual punishment if all our classmates got Christmas except us. Our town was so small that my acting-teacher dad, despite his religious affiliation, was enlisted to play Santa down at Camp Alexandra, the Crescent Beach community centre. He explained his red suit and white beard by claiming he worked for St. Nick. I didn’t even have to write letters—Dad literally called my wish list in to the North Pole.
Of course, we had Hanukkah, too. We lit the hanukiah, said the prayers and ate the latkes. Plus, our best present was always reserved for the first night’s feast. But the bulk of the gifts were doled out Christmas morning after a night by the trimmed tree reading The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and singing carols (mostly, but not entirely, the secular ones).
So we celebrated Chrismukkah long before The O.C.’s Seth Cohen made it a thing in the teen-soap’s iconic 2003 episode, “The Best Chrismukkah Ever.” The Death Cab For Cutie-loving high-school hipster described his made-up superholiday as “eight days of presents, followed by one day of many presents,” which is a good a reason as any to celebrate it.
Another good reason is that it annoys fundamentalists, ranging from a 2004 joint-statement by the New York Catholic League and New York Board of Rabbis declaring it “insulting” to Jews and Christians right up to a blogger on Jewish parenting website Kveller.com recently arguing Actually, You Can’t Celebrate Hanukkah AND Christmas. Kveller’s Jordana Horn goes so far as to say that, even if you live in an interfaith household, “if you just celebrate both holidays ‘in a cultural, not religious way,’ without thinking about it? Well, in my opinion, you should probably just celebrate Christmas and forget about Hanukkah, because you diminish both holidays’ significance through your actions and render them meaningless.” Yep, she’s worried we might diminish the non-biblical miracle of seven free days of oil (but, of course, she’s cool with you making Jesus’ birthday party meaningless).
My lapsed-Catholic wife and I do celebrate in a cultural not religious way, and we love that our two-year-old Emile is mesmerized by the menorah. But when I take him to daycare every morning he ignores it and shouts, “bye-Bye Christmas tree!” because even as a toddler he realizes Christmas is way better. But Chrismukkah is perfect way to bring both of his parents’ holiday traditions together without forcing Hanukkah to vainly compete on a holiday-awesomeness scale.
We plan to start doing the same with Peaster (Eastover?) because, even with the whole chocolate egg-laying bunny thing, Easter can’t compete with Passover. Even the Last Supper was a Passover seder and, no offense, but I find the fixation on crucifixion pretty dark and counter to JC’s up-with-people attitude.
Besides, even if Chrismukkah is a pretend-holiday, are the real ones noticeably any less so? What matters is that we celebrate ritual, tradition, family and eight days of presents… followed by one day of many presents.