Chanukah and Christmas: A Study in Ecumenicism


Chanukah and Christmas have many similarities: They both fall in December. They both delight the merchant classes. They’re both lighthearted holidays that don’t sufficiently emphasize their religious and historical origins. And both festivals love light.  

Jews light candles. Christians light up evergreen trees. And finally, they’re both followed by a flood of bankruptcy filings by Christian and Jewish families who have blown the December budget on munificent gifts to kids who will forget their parents’ names, address, and phone number by the time they’re 21. (“City Bank writes monthly about their new credit card, but not a word from Marvin,” says one of my neglected friends.)

Chanukah used to be a skimpy little holiday – more patriotic than religious.  Jewish families feasted on fried potato cakes or latkes –  a delightful medley of potato, onion, and matzoh meal – de riguer on Chanukah. This is followed by long periods of togetherness as the family holds hands, suffers from heartburn, and chews Rolaids together. 

The Jewish family laps up potato cakes while their Christian neighbors dine on a great, golden goose surrounded by festive delicacies. This menu inequality, and perhaps a disagreement over the arrival date of the Messiah, is all that keeps Christians and Jews from some serious cost-cutting with a corporate merger.  

In Jewish homes, after the prayers, candle lighting, latke feast and anti-acid therapy regimen, a long-winded story teller, like this author, tells the tale of Chanukah: the campaign of liberation waged by the Jews of the 2nd century before Christ.

In the old days, kids enjoyed a frugal Chanukah. They usually received a coin each day of the eight-day celebration. But sometime around the middle of the 20th century, inflamed by their Christian neighbors and their frenzied December generosity, Jews turned Chanukah into an eight-day orgy of gifts.  It was a giant step toward economic assimilation and bridge building between the two sister religions.  Jews were now ALSO broke in January. Their checks bounced as well as those of their Christian friends. They could even tell better shopping stories due to the eight-day frenzy of exercising their credit cards.  

I remember the scene when I was a youthful Chanukah celebrant. My grandmother, enthroned in the softest chair in the living room, handed out holiday coins to a line of grandkids, nephews, and nieces. There was a protocol – like when you were introduced to the Queen.  You held out your hand as Grandmother reached into her purse and selected your coin.

This was no egalitarian exercise. The coins ranged from quarters to silver dollars. Both behavior and kinship went on the scale.  A courteous well cleaned up cousin with clean fingernails could cop a bigger prize than a grandkid who never called grandmother.  The ceremony ended with a long, slow kiss to grandmother’s cheek, an obligation which smart kids realized affected next year’s disbursement.  

My cousin, Arlene, as far-sighted as the prophet Elijah, was even smart enough to help cut up her Bubbe’s latkes.  And that was Chanukah in my day.

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