Yesterday I asked that you think of a good reason to celebrate Hanukkah this year. I came up with two that work for me. First, we need something to combat the allure of Christmas. Second, Hanukkah can morph into an eco-friendly holy day challenging us to do more with less. Today let’s look at Hanukkah as the alternative to Christmas.
Think about this: Is Hanukkah really the way you want Judaism to be remembered? If you had to hold one holy day up as really getting at the heart of Judaism would Hanukkah even cross your mind? I doubt it. Not when it has to compete with really fun holy days like Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av.
We like to think of Hanukkah as a war of liberation, and while we did get a few decades of self-rule out of defeating Antiochus IV, the Hasmonean dynasty led by the Maccabees was far from laudable. What good came out of the Maccabean revolt? Were the people any freer? Did we advance education or science or democracy? Sure we got a big statue to Zeus out the Temple, but most Greeks didn’t believe in the old guy anyway, and it gave the Jewish priests some place to hang their robes, so what’s the harm? And would the substitution of pig slaughtering for cow slaughtering have been such a big deal—to anyone but the pigs and cows, I mean?
Even the rabbis found Hanukkah troubling. That’s why they focus on the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. They wanted the people to think about something other than the military prowess of the Maccabees who brought the corrupt Hasmonean regime into power. Don’t put your faith in these warriors and their priests trust the God of the little lamp and the rabbis who play Paul Winchell to His Charlie McCarthy.
The truth is, once the Hasmoneans were betrayed by their Roman puppet masters Hanukkah was seen for what it was: a minor holiday, and if not for Christmas, Hanukkah would have gone the way of Tu b’Av. Don’t know what that is? My point exactly. And Tu b’Av is Jewish Valentine’s Day without the Saint and the Massacre. It’s even better than Valentine’s Day: on Tu b’Av even Charlie Brown gets a card, if not from the little red-haired girl at least from some liberal Protestant girl who thinks Linus is just too religious, believing as he does in both Jesus and the Great Pumpkin. If we Jews could forget a day like that how long do you think we would remember Hanukkah? Nope, Hanukkah would have disappeared along with the Hasmoneans if Christians hadn’t made such a big deal about Christmas. Where are the Puritans when you need them?
Oliver Cromwell, the original Grinch, and his Puritan followers abolished Christmas in 1645. Their objection? I think it was the incessant Christmas music in the lifts (what we Yanks call elevators). Charles II took the country back from the Puritans and restored the holy day, but the Puritans had already set up a new home base in America where from 1659 to 1681 Christmas was against the law in Boston. Can you imagine? Christmas was banned in Boston! Talk about a War on Christmas! Christmas wasn’t declared a Federal Holiday in the United States until 1870, and the tradition of trampling Wal-Mart employees to death didn’t come into vogue until years later. By the time it did, however, Christmas was already a huge deal, and, despite every effort of Chinese restaurant owners to make them feel special on Christmas, the Jews felt left out.
American Jews had only four options: 1) don’t celebrate the holy day; 2) celebrate the holy day; 3) celebrate Christmas’ older form by commemorating the birth of the Roman God Mithra; or 4) turn Hanukkah into the greatest thing since Shavuos. They chose the latter. That meant eight nights of extravagance: “Hey you goyyim, you only got one night? What kinda God is that? We got eight! Count ‘em: two, four, six, eight now you know God’s really great! And what gives with your God, anyway? A baby asleep in a manger? Man we got Judah the Hammer kickin’ ass and takin' Roman numerals. Your God doesn’t get to kill anybody. At least not until He comes back, and by then we’ve probably killed ourselves off anyway. But our God kills everybody. ‘Specially those Greek bastards. Christmas—feh!”
Of course all that bluster was a just a smoke screen. Inside we were dying. Sure we can buy more presents because we have more nights, but—come on!— nothing really beats Christmas for glitz and glamour. Can you imagine a Macy’s Day Hanukkah Parade in Jerusalem? Israel doesn’t even have a Macy’s! And if they did have a parade, who would march? A bunch of Hasidim? Imagine the commentary:
“Welcome back to the sixth day of the eight-day 192 hour-long Macy’s Hanukkah Parade, it sure is something, eh Zaftig?”
“Thanks God, Shayneh Punim, thanks be to God! And look at the colors!”
“Yes, the colors… black…”
“Oh yes, and white.”
“And here comes the giant Chabad Menorah.”
“This year’s entry is seventeen hundred stories tall, and is weighted down with four hundred Satmar Hasidim.”
“Yes, and on a sad note, despite all our prayers, last year’s Rebbe balloon, lost when a tether broke, has still not returned.”
“Sad, but maybe next year.”
“Yes, next year in Jerusalem.”
Can you really out do a Christmas tree with a Hanukkah (Hanukkah menorah)? Imagine the CNN coverage of the White House Lighting of the Menorah after the lighting of the National Christmas Tree:
“Thanks, Wolfe. It is a wonderful scene here on the front lawn of the White House. The First Lady is about to light the seventeen thousand foot spruce donated by state of Alaska. As you know, Wolfe, this specific tree was chosen because it was obscuring the governor’s view of Russia.”
“There are the lights! It is just gorgeous. I’m told you can see that tree shining from four hundred light years away.”
“That’s true, Wolfe. And now the First Lady is about to light the five-inch tall Hanukkah menorah donated by the Moishe Gross family of New York City in honor of their aunt Tanta Chenkeh who recently won the sisterhood Bingo at Temple Beth B’nai Zion Am Yisrael Chai in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”
“I can almost see it, Christiana.”
“Well, take my word for it, Wolfe, it is there. Somewhere. Somewhere in all that Christmas glitter and Christmas light. Back to you, Wolf.”
There is no comparison.
And the feelings don’t compare either. Christmas is the birthday of the Prince of Peace, Hanukkah is a war holiday. Christmas symbols are of lambs and camels, baby Jesus and Mary, perhaps the only Jewish woman who ever slept in a manger, let alone gave birth in one. Of course there is Joseph, long suffering Joseph, who is cuckolded by God. Can you imagine? Of course if you’re a Christian you do imagine it, but we Jews—no way. Give us Judah the Hammer over that nebbish any day. But the feelings of love and peace and good will toward men and women and boys and girls and peace on earth—man, that just isn’t Hanukkah. Open a Hanukkah card and it reads, “Death to the Hellenizers!”
And the food! Christmas ham, Christmas turkey, Christmas fruitcake… there is no end to the foods you can preface with the word “Christmas.” What do the Jews’ eat? Today we have latkes, potato pancakes, but in ancient Israel they never heard of potatoes. So they ate greasy balls of dough called sufganiot and a pasta dish named after Judah Maccabee called Macc ‘n Cheese.
Look, I’m not complaining. I’m proud to be a Jew, but I have to admit at this time of year, I just wish I had it in me to, well, you know… I’m not saying I want a Christmas tree or anything that obvious, but maybe, just this once, I could pretend I wasn’t Jewish and knock down a Wal-Mart greeter or two. Of course if they were Greeks I’d put a cap in their ass! Damn those Hellenizers!