Has Chanukah Become Christmas?
We are in the midst of Chanukah. For me, Chanukah looks a bit different this year compared to past years. I have a couple neighbours who, for the first time, have huge inflatable Chanukah-themed bears and “Happy Hanukkah” signs on their front lawn. At first I thought it was just a couple of close-by neighbours, but as I toured around Oakridge – the community I live in – I noticed a lot more of these giant balloon things that are so large that they have their own inflating motors that keep them blown up. That is until they are turned off whereupon they collapse into a mass of plastic on the lawn. But like the prayer of Techiat HaMatim – Resurrection of the Dead – that we recite daily in the Amida, they magically re-inflate the next night. Maybe this is what Ezekial saw in his Vision of Dry Bones.
At any rate, apparently this is such a trend that even The Wall Street Journal took note and had a piece about it in this past Monday’s paper entitled, “Hanukkah Décor Gets Upgraded: Is That a Santa in Blue?”
Every year, throngs drive by Moshe Isenberg’s normally nondescript house in Chicago during the week leading to and during Hanukkah. The 44-year-old transforms his corner-lot yard into a dreidel Disneyland. Eight inflatable bears, ranging from 3 feet to 9 feet high, hold the holiday spinning tops; two have sweaters that say, “Oy vey.” A light machine broadcasts moving dreidels onto the two-story brick house. In a front window, a jumbo dreidel rotates near a life-size animatronic Santa Claus that has been repurposed to look like a rabbi.
Oy vey indeed. But apparently not all are so enamored at this new trend and the article points that out:
Rabbi Yael Buechler welcomes Hanukkah merchandise as long as it is authentic, which much of it isn’t, she says. “It’s basically Christmas products rebranded as Hanukkah ones, and some are just wrong.”
The competition of Chanukah versus Christmas and the subsequent mimicking of Christmas has been in the works for some time already. Gift-giving is the most glaring example. This week, when I taught a class to a group of young women, high-school age and older – most of whom are religious – I informed them that giving gifts on Chanukah is a relatively new phenomenon that only arose as a Jewish response to Christmas. They were quite surprised and unaware and thought it had always been that way. I told them to ask their parents or better, their grandparents if they ever got presents on Chanukah. If they were like me, we got five bucks of Chanukah gelt from Zeida and that was it. No presents, and certainly not eight of them.
Let’s remind ourselves what Chanukah is all about. There are two main historical events that we are commemorating. The victorious war over the Greeks in response to their religious oppression when they forbade Jewish practice of Torah and Mitzvot. And the miracle of discovering one pure flask of oil in the Temple that should have only lasted one day but burned for eight instead.
It is noteworthy that we mainly focus on only one of these two events. Although we make reference to the military victory in the Al HaNissim prayer recited during the holiday, the main commemoration of Chanukah is lighting the Menorah that recalls the miracle of the oil.
It’s those quiet, small flickering lights that are instrumental in Pirsumei Nisah – publically proclaiming the miracle that God brought about for the Jewish people. We don’t have loud and extravagant military parades or any other expressions of the military victory. All we are commanded to do, to remember and observe Chanukah, is to light a small candle and add one each night for the duration of the chag.
Miracles don’t have to be broadcast on loudspeakers. They don’t need PR machines. They speak for themselves. The good that God does, the Truth that shines through, the Righteousness that prevails, the deliverance “of the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the evil into the hands of the good” all are self-evident. They need not be screamed from the rooftops nor do they need huge inflatable teddy bears with “Happy Hanukkah” plastered across their bellies.
All they need is a small little flame. A tiny flicker of light to quietly and gently remind us that good does triumph over evil and that this is God’s plan and hope for our world.
Am I being a bit of a scrooge and throwing cold water onto the efforts of some to express their holiday joy? Perhaps. I am not here to diss any one person’s attempt to make their Chanukah celebration bigger and more noticeable this year. But at some point we need to step back and see if maybe we might be losing the thread and the meaning of the day in our holiday exuberance of 9-foot inflatable bears, dreidel Disneylands and endless gifts.
As for me, a simple lighted silver Menorah in my window will be enough. Yeah, we will give the grandkids gifts (kids get gelt), and our family has even incorporated a “Secret Santa” which apparently is referred to as “Hanukkah Harry” of late, so I too am guilty.
But Chanukah is about the Light. The Light of Truth. The Light of Righteousness. The Light of Good over Evil and of Justice over Hate and Prejudice. And try as we may, all the loud, large and gaudy decorations, gifts and parties will never extinguish that.
But we fight back to light that fire
They got a problem because this neshama won’t expire…
And so we make a flame for this miracle
So we make it eight days
And we can call it eight flames
We light a flame for this miracle
We light a flame for this miracle