A Jewish take on the Christmas holiday season
Holly Hillstrom, a Stevenson freshman, loves Christmas but wishes that Chanukah got more representation. She shares these wishes with lots of American Jews during this time because Christmas feels like a national holiday in the United States. Around a quarter of Americans are not part of a religion that celebrates Christmas. Many people feel uncomfortable about the holiday and how their family celebrates during this time.
As Jews flocked to America, Chanukah changed dramatically. It was not regarded as important until the holiday season was established in America — perhaps in part to support the economy. Dr. Lisa Koenig, a Stevenson science and math teacher, comments, "Hanukkah isn’t actually a major holiday in Judaism, but it is a fun one, and it has become important mostly for children who don't want to feel left out at Christmastime." The most similar holiday to Christmas for Jews would be Purim which includes gift-giving, parades, and dressing up. However, due to its timing, many think of Purim as the equivalent of Easter.
Celebrating Chanukah can be quite difficult for most Jewish-American families. To treat this holiday as time spent with family and friends, relaxing, and handing out gifts can be completely ruined from year to year. Since Chanukah is a Jewish holiday, it falls on the Jewish/Hebrew calendar. This calendar does not line up with the American Gregorian calendar and often makes gathering difficult. This year, Chanukah is not a part of winter break. The 8th day of the holiday is on Friday the 18th, the final day of school. This is often the case with this holiday, making family gatherings more difficult as there is no designated secular holiday per se.
One Jewish Stevenson family chooses to celebrate Christmas just so they have a consistent day to meet with their extended family: “... everybody gets together on Christmas because they get a week off from work and they can travel to go visit their extended family. The ability to gather as a family during Christmas and to not be able to gather during Chanukah is embedded in the work laws of the United States.” They have a tree that they call a “Chanukah bush” and it is adorned with the Star of David at the top. Stevenson freshman Harrison Wilmot’s family compromises by celebrating Christmas because of their father and Chanukah because of their mother. He receives books over Chanukah and the rest of his presents on Christmas.
Students in the Stevenson dorms are not allowed to light candles for safety reasons and therefore they have adapted by “lighting” electric tea candles. This makes the tradition of letting candles burn out impossible.
Accessibility is another issue for many families, especially those in Monterey. One Stevenson family comments, “They don’t buy Chanukah supplies in this area because there are like four Jews so why bother? They only buy three sets of candles, someone gets left out. So whenever I see them, I buy them.” Holly Hillstrom’s family chooses to order their Chanukah supplies from Zabars, a store in New York.
But most Jews actually love Christmas. The ability to spend time with family, eat food, and set up decorations involving lights is quite appealing to us Jews. Every person interviewed for this article said, verbatim, “I love Christmas!” Lewis, a modern Orthodox Jew, bonds with her mother by playing Christmas music directly after Thanksgiving. Dr. Koenig practices a common tradition among people who do not celebrate Christmas: “[We eat] Chinese food on Christmas night.” With most people celebrating on this day, it creates opportunities for many religions to explore an empty world and get to skip the line.
Even though most Jews love the spirit of the holidays, it is still incredibly frustrating for them during this time. A Stevenson mother comments, “It’s somewhat hypocritical for me to feel sad that Chanukah is not celebrated when in fact it is really not a high holiday for Jewish people… We are supposed to be that country; that melting pot. The place where our Jewish ancestors fled during the Holocaust. We are supposed to be an areligious society. It’s in our Constitution to separate Church and State. It makes me sad that we don’t live in that society that we are supposed to live in.”