The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over their Syrian Greek oppressors in 164 BCE, more than a century and a half before the birth of Jesus, which is celebrated annually by Christians at Christmas. The themes of Hanukkah are religious freedom, maintaining Jewish identity, the victory of the underdog, miracles, and light. Since it is a holiday of celebrating religious freedom and independence, it is somewhat ironic that many people consider it the “Jewish Christmas.”
Because the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, Jewish holidays shift around a bit from year to year. Hanukkah can occur as early as American Thanksgiving and as late as Christmas.
How, then, did Hanukkah become so closely associated with Christmas?
In the late 19th century, Christmas, and particularly the Christmas gift exchange, became a major feature of American culture. It rapidly became a national rather than purely Christian tradition. Jewish immigrants, who were coming to America at this time in large numbers, wished to prove their ‘Americanness,’ and felt pressured to participate. Doing so was a way to signal that they too were true Americans.
Even today, for younger Jewish children in America, December can present a difficult dilemma. The allure of Christmas decorations, sweets, and gifts often compares unfavorably with the less elaborate traditions of Hanukkah. Some families respond by amplifying Hanukkah so that it feels equally significant.
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