I’m an Orthodox Jew, yet from now until December 26 I will be greeting everyone I encounter who isn’t Jewish with “Merry Christmas.” The War on Christmas is tiresome, although that’s not the reason for my greeting. Also tiresome is the annual (and escalating) battle by non-Christians to secure a place for their own winter holiday that is just as prominent as Christmas, regardless of the demographic makeup of their town—especially the suddenly evangelical atheists and the creepy-by-design “Satanists.” But neither the Satanists nor the religiously secular drive me into the “Merry Christmas” camp.
It is, in fact, my fellow Jews who have been drawn into a modern custom that has made it necessary to draw some lines. Somehow, the minor wintertime festival of Hanukkah has become Jewish Christmas, with Jews getting promoted to equity partner in the multicultural conglomerate “Happy Holidays.” We are on one hand trying to emulate Christmas while at the same time minimizing its importance in American culture.
This is the modern West’s version of universalism. Whereas the Christian version of universalism departs from traditional Christian theology most clearly with regard to the concept of redemption, the modern multicultural version is to reject the particularism of holiday worship. If the Left can’t banish Christianity from the public square, they can at least coopt and dilute it.
Hanukkah Is a Fight Against Jewish Assimilation
During communal celebrations of the “holiday season,” whether they be displays in store windows or just the greetings that clerks are allowed to extend to customers, there’s a growing call from Jews and non-Jews alike to put Hanukkah on equal footing with Christmas, to make December into “holiday season” instead of Christmastime. Some of this is liberal cultural aggression masquerading as ethnic solidarity. The American Left sees public displays of Christianity as remnants of the ancien régime and Judaism as an opportune vehicle for socio-political protest.
The sad irony is that the story of Hanukkah is at its core about a fight against total Jewish assimilation into the prevailing culture, a fact lost on most American Jews. We celebrate a holiday about resistance against assimilation by assimilating with (while resisting against) the Christian nature of our American home. We give gifts wrapped in Hanukkah wrapping paper, have parties, and some even have “Hanukkah bushes” (a.k.a. Christmas trees). It would be understandable on some level for non-practicing secularists to embrace this universalism; they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. But for Jews and other religious Americans, the dilution goes both ways: you can’t make Hanukkah more like Christmas without making it less like Hanukkah.
It’s worth making a key distinction here, however. A central tenet of the Hanukkah laws is the idea of pirsumei nisa, the publicizing of the miracle. It’s why Jews light their menorahs near windows. A grand lighting of a giant Hanukkah menorah in the town square is perfectly compatible with the spirit of Hanukkah. And in this day and age of resurgent anti-Semitism, it’s also in far too many cases a demonstration of bravery. What I’m discussing is not a proud and public Hanukkah celebration, which is admirable. Instead, I’m talking about what amounts to religious mimicry.
Yes, It’s Really Hard to Swim Against Culture
These futile attempts to put Hanukkah on par with Christmas have created two of the worst products I’ve seen in recent years: Mensch on a Bench (a knockoff of Elf on a Shelf) and a “Do-It-Yourself Chanukah House Vanilla Cookie Decorating Kit,” better described as the Jewish gingerbread house. Both products have been heavily marketed on Jewish blogs and websites, the latter distributed by the most famous Jewish food company, Manischewitz. They have clearly infiltrated the Jewish mainstream, and have market appeal even for Jews who would never dare erect a “Hanukkah bush” in their homes.
It’s understandable that Jews might want to feel included in the holiday hullaballoo. Just as it’s difficult to prepare for a wave of Jewish holidays in the middle of fall—the major Jewish holiday season, which includes holy days on which Jews cannot work, attend school, etc.—while American life goes on as usual, it’s also difficult, especially with children, to have a holiday you don’t celebrate interrupt regular life. It’s easy to feel left out, especially if you’ve never had any firsthand experience with Christmas.
Although I’m an observant Jew now, I grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah and know that the joy of the Christmas season also comes with an incredible amount of stress, pressure, and expectation. For Jews, however, Christmas looks a lot more fanciful with eggnog, presents, and caroling. Christmas looks as fanciful to Jews as Passover does to Christians. Yes, having a seder with family is fun, but the weeks of preparation, cleaning, cooking, and making one’s home kosher for Passover is anything but. Holidays are always more attractive when they don’t come with baggage.
Stop Pretending We All Believe the Same Things
But that “baggage” contains aspects of our identity and history. Universalists see this as the trappings of tribalism. They assume it’s self-evidently bad. They feel the same way about individualism and treat it as necessarily exclusionary. In much the same way as they only tolerate the tolerant, they exclude those who practice exclusion.
This universalism is often well-intentioned: Why should anyone have to feel left out? Yet grouping all distinct holidays into The Holidays, with the season’s one greeting, one set of behavioral and commercial postures, and one equally shared space is universalism run amok. In his book, “The Dignity of Difference,” former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that “universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism, and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief—superficially compelling but quite false—that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition, and it holds true for all people at all times.”
Whether for Jews copying Christian celebration or secularists draining the season of its faith, the forced universalism of the season is a trap, no matter how pretty the wrapping paper it comes in.