There was a time when the Christmas season opened as soon as Thanksgiving was over. Even so, there was a mixing of holiday sentiments—with various Christmas elements apparent in Thanksgiving Day parades, such as the unparalleled Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade held in New York City each year. Then the Christmas season was pushed back somewhat to Halloween—or perhaps the day after—with retailers constantly on the lookout for ways to extend their brief but most lucrative season of the year. This is particularly true in difficult economic times. But it isn’t even Halloween—at least not for another week—and yet Christmas season seems to be upon us. If you were to measure seasons by the catalogues that come to my mailbox each day, there would be no doubt in your mind.
In the midst of this overabundance of Christmas spirit, what happens to Hanukkah? This is a particularly important question for years like 2010 when Hanukkah comes quite early (a result of the leap year in the Hebrew calendar). And this is particularly important for the growing number of children being raised in interfaith households. Hanukkah has the potential to get lost, particularly among interfaith families when it isn’t a major holiday, a major celebration, a major focus of the family’s attention.
Some rabbis will respond with the age-old “Hanukkah is a minor holiday. It is not the Jewish Christmas. In this age of overabundance, it is important to celebrate its simplicity.” Well, it just isn’t true. And such an approach is unsatisfactory. Thankfully, our Chabad friends have grown the Hanukkah menorah and the holiday itself to the proportions it well deserves. While Hanukkah indeed provides a different focus for Judaism than does Christmas for Christianity, Hanukkah is a major holiday in its own right. (“Minor” is just a technical term anyway, referring to those holidays that do not have the same prohibitions on work and the like such as the Shabbat and the High Holidays.) And it is certainly major in the lives of the North American Jewish community, particularly among its children.
The miracle of religious freedom is major. The victorious struggle of a small band of passionate fighters against the army of an empire is major. Light that paves its way through the darkness is major. And the rededication of the ancient Temple as the center of worship for the Jewish people, along with the restoration of Jerusalem is major.
For some interfaith families, the proximity of Christmas and Hanukkah poses a dilemma, most notably the question of how a family can honor both traditions in one home. But in those years Hanukkah has the benefit of being mentioned alongside Christmas. When the holidays are celebrated weeks apart, there is no dilemma—there’s only a challenge to ensure that Hanukkah doesn’t get overlooked. The early celebration of Christmas is already taking place. It’s time for Hanukkah to take its rightful place right next to it.