It’s December, and I’m Jewish. “So, when’s Chanukah?” I have no idea. No, seriously. I don’t know. It could be right now. It might have already passed. I’m not totally sure. I always have to consult The Google to tell me when Chanukah is, and I usually don’t realize it’s started until it’s at least partly over. I want to get this out of the way: not knowing when Chanukah is doesn’t make me a bad Jew. And to try to explain why, I’m going to give you a few basics about this festival.
- Chanukah/Hannukah/Hanukkah/fercryingoutloud how do you spell this word? OK, so I’m hoping you all know that Chanukah is a Hebrew word, and Hebrew uses a different alphabet from English. So what we’re dealing with here is what we call transliteration: trying to use the characters from one alphabet to fit the pronunciation of a word from a language that uses a different alphabet. This is how the name of the festival appears in Hebrew:
We do our best, OK? I prefer “Chanukah,” lots of other people prefer “Hanukkah.” Both are correct.
- Goyim: Non-Jews. It’s not inherently insulting, but it’s a lot more fun than “gentiles.”
- You may have noticed I keep using the word “festival” instead of “holiday.” That’s intentional. As Adam Sandler helpfully informed a generation of Americans, Chanukah is the Festival of Lights. It’s not a major holiday. The big Jewish holidays (the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) take place in the autumn. There are festivals throughout the year, of which Chanukah is one. I’m going to put this out there by itself in the hopes that it sinks in:
Chanukah is not a major holiday. Chanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas.”
- So why does everyone think it is? Because it takes place in December. It’s near Christmas. And people like to think there’s a neat 1:1 substitution for all December holidays for major religions. Untrue.
- Chanukah is not traditionally a gift-giving holiday. When I was young, back in the Dark Ages, typical Chanukah “gifts” were pencils and socks. And gelt, which are those chocolate coins in gold foil that come in a yellow mesh bag. That’s it. Again, the proximity of Chanukah to Christmas has led to a false equivalency that makes huge, elaborate gifts the norm.
- Wishing someone “Happy Chanukah” is roughly equivalent to wishing them a “Happy Sukkot” or a “Joyous Purim.” I bet a lot of you haven’t heard of those. They’re also Jewish festivals, roughly as important as Chanukah. But they aren’t in December, so they get no love. (By the way, Purim is awesome. You dress up in costumes, and there are noisemakers, and hamentaschen, which are delicious little jam-filled cookies. It’s a really fun festival.)
- Latkes are definitely a Chanukah thing. I will never object to latkes. Shredded potatoes plus onions, deep fried in pancake form and served with sour cream or applesauce. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
- There’s a good story about why Chanukah is a festival. It involves Judah, Maccabees, a lamp burning for eight days with only enough oil for one day, and the re-dedication of desecrated temples. If you want to learn more, jewfaq.org is a fantastic resource for all things Jewish, explaining every possible facet of Jewish life in an easy-to-understand, non-condescending way.
- Lighting the menorah and spinning the dreidel are traditional Chanukah activities, much like building a sukkah and trying to figure out what the heck an etrog is are traditional Sukkot activities, and dressing up like Esther and giving gifts of food and drink are traditional Purim activities.
While I certainly appreciate the push for inclusion that has been progressing over the last decade or two, indicating that some people, at least, understand that the assumption that everyone in the U.S. is a Christian and that everyone celebrates Christmas is annoying at best, and harmful in the everyday, I do wish that in the rush for inclusion, people would take a little time to figure out what exactly it is that they’re including. As a Jewish person in the U.S., I don’t feel it necessary for Jewish holidays to be recognized by all and sundry, including the government. What I would find far more productive toward making non-Christians feel less excluded and less “othered” would be if NO holidays were forced down our collective throats by the government, the media, the schools, and other Americans. We should all be free to celebrate what we want, to follow the beliefs of our religions (or lack thereof), but it would be a much happier, much less contentious place if we stopped trying to shove false inclusion at everyone, and instead allowed people to do as they wanted, religiously, without it turning into a popularity contest. Because, in the U.S., non-Christians will always lose, and there will always be associated animosity and resentment when the majority group thinks that inclusiveness is oppressing them in any way.
So, yeah, I say “Have a nice day” right up through January. I don’t mess around with “Happy Holidays,” I don’t think “Happy Chanukah” is an acceptable response to “Merry Christmas,” and I think that intolerance and hate aren’t really in the spirit of “the season,” whatever that might mean to you.