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War Against Christmas 2009: Reflections on Hanukkah, Christmas, and "Nitel Night"
Eight years ago, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a slightly abridged version of my first essay on the War Against Christmas, the paper offered a fair description of my argument to its readers: "The public celebration of Christmas has been sacrificed, says Tom Piatak, to the feel-good forces of multiculturalism."
Last year, so much progress had been made in fighting back against the War Against Christmas that The Daily Beast's Max Blumenthal was reduced to willfully misreading my essay in an attempt to scare people away from the struggle. [Who Started The War On Christmas, December 8, 2008 ] But two things Blumenthal wrote about my essay were somewhat accurate: I did quote American Heritage's Frederic Schwarz as calling Hanukkah the "Jewish Kwanzaa", [Merry Chanukah, American Heritage Magazine, December 2000]and I did write that Hanukkah was among the many alternative holidays presented by "multiculturalists" as "faux-Christmases" in "order to compete with, diminish, and ultimately efface Christmas".
Given Blumenthal's singular focus on Hanukkah—which this year starts at sundown tonight, December 11—I wondered if I had been unfair in my characterization of that festival. Is Hanukkah at all comparable to Kwanzaa, and is a desire to compete with Christmas really an important force in its celebration?
As fate would have it, an article addressing these questions appeared in my hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on December 20 last year. The article, How Hanukkah Has Become Hip by John Campanelli, noted that "Until the late nineteenth century, the holiday was celebrated modestly in Jewish homes, with an adult male lighting candles and reciting the blessing". Indeed, the article, citing Dianne Ashton, a religious studies professor at Rowan University who is writing a book on Hanukkah, noted that "It's hard to tell exactly how things were celebrated because there's almost no record of it. Ashton found no mention of Hanukkah in old diaries and letters. Instead, they mentioned the Sabbath, Passover, and other, more significant holidays".
Needless to say, the same can hardly be said of Christmas: even though the Puritans succeeded in suppressing Christmas for a time, both in England and parts of America, Christmas was enormously popular both before and after the Puritan interlude, with such carols as The First Nowell. "I Saw Three Ships," "The Coventry Carol," and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" surviving the Puritans and being embraced by the Victorians. The whole world knows something about Christmas in 19th century London, thanks to Charles Dickens, who quotes from "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" in A Christmas Carol.
The impact of the Puritan interlude is also undermined by the fact that most Americans have ancestors from places where Puritanism never put a damper on Christmas. The 2000 census recording that more Americans claimed German ancestry than any other ancestry. And Germans, both Protestant and Catholic, have always celebrated Christmas with gusto.
In fact, according to Ashton, it was the German-American zest for Christmas that was instrumental in creating the modern Hanukkah. The first concerted effort she found for more emphasis on Hanukkah occurred in the 1870s in Cincinnati where "Because of [the city's] large German population, the traditions of Santa Claus, trees and gift giving were everywhere." In response, Cincinnati rabbi Max Lilienthal promised that "Our children shall have a grand and glorious Hanukkah festival as nice as any Christmas festival."
Ashton's account is consistent with the one offered by Frederic Schwarz in the American Heritage article in which he termed Hanukkah the "Jewish Kwanzaa—an invented cultural celebration".
The first celebration of Hanukkah is described in the Bible I use, at 1 Maccabees 4, 35-59, but it is not found in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, since the book of Maccabees is not part of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, as Schwarz notes, "the tradition about one day's worth of oil lasting eight days is not mentioned in any contemporary record. It first appeared several centuries later in the Talmud". Because of Hanukkah's absence from the Hebrew Bible, "many other Jewish holy days are more important from a religious standpoint—not just Passover, Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), but also Simchat Torah, Shavuot, and Sukkot."
"Of course", notes Schwarz, the reason Hanukkah now enjoys at least as much prominence as any of these festivals "is Christmas". And in fact it took a while for the idea of Hanukkah as an alternative to Christmas to catch on. Schwarz cites an 1855 New York Times article describing how Jews "in most European countries" gave presents at Christmas, and how Jews in New York City exchanged presents at New Year's. Writes Schwarz: "In neither of these cases was substituting Chanukah considered an option; it was simply too insignificant".
Empirical evidence showing that competition with Christmas is a driving force in today's unprecedented emphasis on Hanukkah also became available last year. As Ray Fisman noted in his article The Invisible Hand of God in Slate, Stanford economists Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav, and Oren Rigbi concluded [PDF] that "it is competition from Christmas . . . that makes families more likely to celebrate Hanukkah". Among the data supporting this conclusion was a survey conducted by the Stanford economists that showed that "only 30 percent of Israelis ranked Hanukkah as a 'top three' festival celebrated by their Jewish classmates" while "at Stanford the figure was more than 95 percent".
Of course, there are different ways of interpreting the fact that Hanukkah is an historically insignificant holiday now given great attention to compete with Christmas. Schwarz regards Hanukkah as "the greatest American holiday", because it is "democratic, inclusive, and multicultural", whereas Fisman wonders if the "outsize importance" attached to "a minor holiday largely unrelated to Judaism's core values" is necessarily the correct response to the appeal of Christmas. But there can be little real debate over whether Hanukkah has indeed become a "faux-Christmas": plainly, it has.
Last year I also came across, at the website of Catholic apologist Mark Shea, a 2004 article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, discussing what Hasidic Jews call Nitel Night and the rest of us call Christmas Eve:
"According to kabbala (Jewish mysticism), on the night on which 'that man'—a Jewish euphemism for Jesus--was born, not even a trace of holiness is present . . . . For this reason, Nitel Night . . . is one of the few occasions when Hasidim refrain from Torah study. On this horrific night, they neither conduct weddings nor do they go to the mikveh (ritual bath)…" [For them, it's wholly unholy, by Shahar Ilan, December 24, 2004]
Of course, such outlandish ideas are far outside the Jewish mainstream, and would be completely irrelevant to a consideration of Hanukkah except for this fact: the group responsible for erecting giant menorahs in public places to observe Hanukkah is Chabad. And Chabad is run by the same Hasidic sect that observes Nitel Night.
Far more mainstream, and vastly more enjoyable, was Dahlia Lithwick's witty and intelligent analysis last year in Slate of which Christmas specials are viewed as acceptable for Jewish children.
But Lithwick was puzzled by the popularity of Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas among her peers, and concluded that "perhaps my colleague Emily Bazelon is right, and Jewish kids like the Grinch because 'Without the ending, the movie is the ultimate fantasy for a Jewish kid with a case of Santa/tree/carols envy—Christmas, canceled.'" [Oy, Hark! | A Jewish parent's guide to Christmas specials, Slate, Dec. 17, 2008]
Adults can be envious as well. My uncle, who lived in Manhattan, noticed some years ago flyers for a performance in December of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus at a Manhattan temple. What caught my uncle's eye was the flyer's description of Judas Maccabaeus as "Handel's greatest oratorio". The implicit comparison, of course, was to Messiah, which was first performed in America at Christmas and has become a staple of the American Christmas, and the score of which Handel is depicted as holding in his hands at his tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Fortunately, such crabbed attitudes are in the minority. I agree with Dahlia Lithwick that "the proper non-Christian response to Christmas joy is not to try to block, suppress, or hide from it", and Lithwick's sentiment is, in my experience, shared by the vast majority of American Jews.
As I wrote in my 2001 essay, "Much of the public celebration of Christmas was capable of being enjoyed by non-Christians as well as Christians, and almost everyone did enjoy at least some of it. I know non-Christians who enjoy Christmas specials, Christmas movies, Christmas music; I do not think these people are unique."
Indeed, American Jews have made significant contributions to the American Christmas—contributions that have been widely embraced by American Christians. The best selling Christmas recording of all time is Bing Crosby's rendition of White Christmas, written by Irving Berlin, who was of course Jewish.
The driving force behind the War Against Christmas remains multiculturalism,—a credo embraced by those of all faiths and of none, that insists that Western culture, of which Christmas is undeniably a part, is problematic at best and oppressive at worst.
As E. V. Kontorovich, himself Jewish, argued long ago, the public elevation of Hanukkah represented the first triumph of the multiculturalist idea in America. But the multiculturalist approval of Hanukkah is not based on an appreciation of Judaism, since, as I have demonstrated, Hanukkah has historically not been an important part of Judaism and an overemphasis of Hanukkah therefore leads to a misunderstanding of Judaism. The multiculturalists approve of Hanukkah for the same reason they approve of all the other faux-Christmases they are promoting these days, including Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali, Bodhi Day, and the winter solstice: none of these holidays is Christmas.
And thus we have the War against Christmas—a War that will only be won once we again realize that there is nothing problematic or oppressive about the public celebration of Christmas, one of the crowning glories of the Western culture that gave birth to America and sustains us still.