The “Holiday” Season
There is no time of year that I feel the tension of being an American Jew more than December, the so-called “holiday season.” On the one hand, I think it is great that I live in country that publicly marks the holidays of all religions. The shift of the standard American greeting in December from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” is significant. On the other hand, I am a bit apprehensive of American culture lumping together its holiday, Christmas, and my holiday, Chanukah, as if there is no difference between them, as if they are merely both American holidays.
I think it is safe to say that in the span of Jewish history, no state has been as accepting of Judaism as the United States. The United States embodies a society that embraces all religions. All citizens are not only allowed, but even encouraged, to publicly practice their religion the way they want, without any coercion from either state or religious leaders. The United States model of religious freedom contrasts sharply with the European (or specifically French) model of the “neutral public square.” In those societies, “freedom of religion” means freedom from religion—as burqas and kippot are both forbidden in public (whether de facto or de juré). I am proud of the fact that I live in the country where Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others can all openly and safely practice their religion.
The time of year from Thanksgiving to New Years’ Day had been dubbed the “holiday season.” “The holiday season” is not limited to Christian holidays—Chanukah has been fully incorporated into the holiday season (along with Kwanza). At the state level, the President of the United States holds a candle lighting ceremony every night of Chanukah. Most public buildings have Menorahs in front of them, along with the traditional Christmas tree. On a more bourgeois level, the standard American greeting is “Happy Holidays,” while “Merry Christmas” is rarely heard these days. The office holiday party always includes latkes. Though it was not always this way, having seen this development evolve within my lifetime, this accepting nature of America and Americans is none other than a blessing from God.
I also happen to love the “holiday season.” Walk around Rockefeller Center and Times Square in December and you can sense an aura of joy—people seem happier. Everyone greets you with a smile. Lights and decorations enliven the streets. This time of year is one of the many reasons I love being an American.
However, these feelings also make me somewhat uneasy. Chanukah is mine. It is not another American holiday. It is not just another link in the “holiday season.” Though it is certainly significant that the president lights a Menorah, it is somewhat concerning on a religious level. Chanukah is not meant to be a national holiday. Christmas, the holiest day of the year in Christianity, has become secularized. Most Americans probably associate Christmas with shopping, family dinners, and vacation time. Americans do not understand why Jews do not celebrate Christmas—“isn’t it just a celebration of the season?” I do not want Chanukah suffering the same fate as Christmas suffered. The religious overtones to American holidays seem to have all but disappeared. I can’t sit by and watch Chanukah become another American secular holiday.
My objections to Chanukah’s incorporation run deeper than its secularization. I feel as if Chanukah is being ornamented within American culture, making Judaism into more of a relic than the real, lively entity that is today. It is as if society is saying to Jews, “Oh look, you have a holiday in December also! Let’s all celebrate it together!” The Menorah is not a ‘toy,’ it’s not something just anyone can light. Chanukah contains profound meaning in the religious-historical context of the Jewish people—simply put, it is not something we can all celebrate together.
To go one step further, I also have a theological concern. Chanukah and Christmas are radically different holidays, commemorating two seminal events in the histories of two very different peoples. Chanukah highlights the uniqueness of the Jewish people—we won the war, despite our numbers; God let the oil burn for eight days, despite the fact that there only was enough for one day. Christmas, on the other hand, highlights the birth of a religion that rejected the idea of the Jewish people being unique. Jesus preached the importance of moral and ethical principles over Mitzvot—the commandments and performances that make us separate from the other nations. Christianity is universalistic; Judaism is more particular, dare I say insular. Despite the fact that it is may not be a coincidence that both holidays fall out near the winter solstice (historians believe Jesus was born in July and the sources for Chanukah are ambiguous at best, notwithstanding the fact that the 25th of Kislev had special meaning from the days of the dedication of the Mishkan), fundamentally speaking, the holidays represent two radically different theological approaches—one emphasizing universal morality, the other emphasizing the importance of particularistic ritual.
We all should certainly be thankful that we live in one of the few countries in human history that not only tolerates but embraces multiple religions—including Judaism. However, we must also keep in mind that we are different. Our holidays are not their holidays. Our path is not their path.