Hanukkah has just concluded (for those who aren't Jewish, it comes at a different time each year because we use a lunar calendar to calculate the date), and I noticed with some disappointment that it's not like it used to be. When I was growing up, Hanukkah was a minor holiday in the Jewish year, celebrated with potato pancakes (latkes), "Hanukkah gelt" (coins made from milk chocolate) and big jelly donuts (sufganiyot). It took place in the home, where we all lit the menorah, and we played various children's games, often with a little top called a dreidel; but Hanukkah was not the Jewish version of Christmas, nor was it supposed to be. In fact, our big holidays were (and still are) Passover and Jewish New Year.
But these days, Hanukkah seems to have risen in importance: I even saw one recent study that said Hanukkah is now the most widely observed Jewish holiday. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Don't get me wrong-- I love Hanukkah and I'm glad more people are observing it; but I get this uncomfortable feeling that it has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday. Rather, it's about competing with Christmas, so Jewish kids don't feel bad that their Christian friends are getting a ton of expensive presents while they're just getting little tops and packages of chocolate coins.
Interestingly, my Christian friends often lament what has happened to their holiday too. I was very friendly with a Catholic nun for many years, and she frequently expressed her sadness that Christmas was no longer about the birth of the Christian savior-- it was about having the most beautifully decorated tree, putting up the most lights, and making sure the kids all got the toys they wanted from Santa. Okay fine, the lights are certainly pretty, and we can all debate whether Jesus was actually born in December (most scholars say he was not). But I cannot help but think that if Jesus were here, he wouldn't want his Christian followers going into debt to keep up with the wish-lists of their kids. Nor would he be pleased by equating love with how much money one spends.
Yet all the ads on TV stress that message-- if you really love your [pick one: spouse, kids, significant other, best friend], you will spare no expense to find the right gift. It all makes me wonder: where would Jesus shop? And where did he even say that his birthday should be celebrated with wreathes, and trees, and reindeer, and Santa and hundreds of dollars worth of gifts? Unless I'm reading the wrong parts of the Bible, the New Testament says what matters most is feeding the poor and helping those who are less fortunate. And the Hebrew Scriptures say pretty much the same thing.
And that brings me to the real "War on Christmas." No, it's not some fake war dreamed up by Fox News and Christian conservatives, who sincerely believe that Christianity is "under attack" by so-called "secular progressives." I promise you, my dear Christian friends, Christianity is doing just fine, and secular progressives are the least of your problems. Nor should you be worried about whether stores say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," or whether Starbucks does or does not have "Christmas messages" on their coffee cups. The real issue is whether we are going to allow the true meaning of Christmas to slip away forever. Originally, both Christmas and Hanukkah were times for family and friends to gather in the home, share a nice meal, and exchange simple gifts-- often gifts they made by hand. Today, both festivals have turned into odes to rampant consumerism, as adults try to out-spend each other, and stores worry about keeping the latest popular toys in stock (or these days, they worry that online shopping is making brick-and-mortar stores irrelevant).
While Christmas is not my holiday, I understand that some of my Christian friends want to see public and visible symbols. I, on the other hand, wish this season were not a contest-- whether or not there's a huge manger in front of City Hall is less important to me than whether we treat each other's holidays with respect. Some cities may have a public menorah lighting at Hanukkah, but most do not. In fact, there are a number of important holidays observed by American Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, and none of those holidays gets much attention at all. They should. Kids need to learn from a young age that there are many religions in America, and all should be treated with courtesy.
Sometimes, I wonder if the war on Christmas (and Hanukkah) has been lost. Too many kids growing up in our modern world don't associate a religious meaning with either holiday-- rather, they just expect that they'll get more stuff this year than they got last year. That may be good for the corporations, but is it good for our ethics and morals? I salute every parent who takes their kids to do volunteer work on Christmas, and each parent who teaches about the joy of giving rather than receiving. It's an important lesson, but it may not be the lesson most kids are getting, given how ostentatious many of the holiday observances have become.
One of my favorite Hanukkah memories occurred in the mid 1980s, in Rapid City, South Dakota. There were few Jews in town, but one family made it a point to preserve Jewish tradition and teach about the holidays. I was in Rapid City on business, and I was invited to their Hanukkah celebration. It was a cold winter night, and we stood on a hill, where the family had put up a big menorah; it was visible for miles. And there we were-- the family, their friends, and I; and we lit the lights, and we sang the prayers, and we expressed our gratitude for the holiday season. The local media covered the event-- they rarely saw Jewish observances-- and it was one of those beautiful, magical, yet very simple celebrations. I have never forgotten it.
So, whether you have the most lights in the neighborhood or none at all, whether you celebrate Christmas in a religious way or a secular way or not at all, let this season be one of kindness, of compassion, and of giving-- not just giving presents, but giving warmth and welcome to those who need it most. If you really want to fight the mythical war on Christmas, go ahead; but a better strategy is to remember what Christmas is really supposed to be about-- it's a time to say thank you, a time to be joyful, and above all, a time to let the light of wisdom pierce the darkness of ignorance. May you have a wondrous holiday season, and may you have many reasons for celebration.