War Against Christmas 2009: Reflections on Hanukkah, Christmas, and “Nitel Night”

WAR
AGAINST CHRISTMAS COMPETITION 2009:
[
blog]
[I]
[2] [3]
[4]
[5] - See also:
War Against Christmas





2008
,


2007
,


2006
,

2005
,

2004
,

2003
,

2002
,

2001
,

2000
,

1999

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.



Tom Piatak
(email

him) writes from Cleveland, Ohio.