Rabbi David Thomas: Hanukkah and Christmas don’t have to share a spotlight

David Thomas

Hanukkah comes early this year, so Jews kindled the first light on Dec. 4, and conclude our festival on Dec. 12. With Hanukkah so early, we will have celebrated eight nights, finished the leftover latkes and packed away our menorahs and dreidels a full two weeks before Christmas begins. I, for one, am delighted whenever Hanukkah and Christmas don’t have to share a spotlight.

Why am I happy about the lack of synchronicity of our winter holidays this year? It’s not that I don’t think we can share the joy of our religious traditions, it’s just that I think we can do it best when we are clear about the differences.

It’s true that there is shared joy and delight in the beauty of our winter celebrations. It is no coincidence that our festivals bring light into our lives at the darkest time of the year. Furthermore, both Christmas and Hanukkah can encourage both generosity and gratitude among all of us.

But let’s face it, Christmas and Hanukkah are more different than they are alike. The heart of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. For Christians, Christmas is a holiday second only to Easter in its religious significance. In contrast, Hanukkah is a minor holiday which commemorates the military victory of the Maccabees in their struggle against assimilation.

When it comes to religious significance, Hanukkah ranks lowest of Jewish holidays. It is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and it pales in comparison with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the New Year and the Day of Atonement), as well as Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, our three major festivals.

I believe that confusion about Hanukkah and Christmas comes from three sources: commercial interests that market to the broadest possible audience, Jews’ desire to be full participants in American society, and our society’s embrace of pluralism and diversity.

Advertisers created the ubiquitous "Season’s Greetings" as well as catch-all sales phrases that begin "This holiday season…" The secularization of holy days in the name of profit makes me sympathize with my Christian colleagues who preach putting "Christ back into Christmas." Frankly, as a Jew, I would prefer to be greeted with a sincere "Merry Christmas" than the neutered "Happy Holidays."

As a kid growing up Jewish in North Carolina, I remember desperately trying to find my place in a majority Christian culture. Avoiding Christmas was like avoiding air. Besides, who would want to? Christmas, with its beautiful traditions — the tree and lights, music and presents — was like forbidden fruit to me. So we engaged in friendly competition in order to feel better about our own holiday. As a kid I bragged, "We get presents for eight nights!" But the reality is, when it comes to its real significance, Hanukkah can’t hold a candle to Christmas.

Americans place a high value on our pluralistic society, celebrating and embracing diversity. Sometimes we are so friendly to the "other" amongst us we bend over backwards, evening the playing field and inadvertently eliminating the very differences we celebrate. So, to make room for Jews at Christmas time, we treat Hanukkah like a Jewish Christmas. Office parties are now called "holiday" parties, Jews decorate their homes with blue and white lights and the so-called "Hanukkah bush" has taken its honored place next to the Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, by blending our rich traditions, we have eliminated the very distinctions that give them meaning. We are left with hollow symbols that invite commercialism into the vacuum. We risk losing the heart and soul of our religious traditions. Worse still, we risk losing the very identities that make us who we are.

David Thomas is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley in Massachusetts.