When I was in elementary school, my dad had the following conversation with a neighbor:
Neighbor: Do you celebrate Christmas?
Dad: No, we’re Jewish.
Neighbor: Yeah, but it’s Christmas. Everyone celebrates Christmas.
Dad: Actually, we don’t. We’re Jewish. Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas.
I’d like to think that, by now, the average American understands that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but when I look around me at the various “holiday displays,” I see that’s unfortunately not true.
While there are myriad ways to celebrate Hanukkah, I tend towards a bare bones approach. I dust off my wax-covered mini menorah from the recesses of my apartment’s oddly-shaped storage nooks, scavenge up the random candles left over from Hanukkahs past, and eat latkes with a schmear of both applesauce and sour cream (don’t come for me). While I enjoy Hanukkah as a holiday, it has also become a way of clinging to my Jewish identity in a time when I feel invisible.
Thanksgiving marks the turning point where this invisibility sets in. Pumpkins are replaced with wreaths, seemingly everything turns red and green, and the familiar sound of ‘90s rock in stores is replaced with Christmas music. And yet, while everything around me is so obviously Christmas-themed (aside from the occasional pitiful Hanukkah display), all of the messaging surrounding it is always labeled for the “holidays.”
The other day, I was in Petco picking up food for my darling Jewish cat, Philip (named after the late Philip Roth). In the checkout line, I came across an image that encapsulates everything I’ve felt about Christmas since I was a kid.
It was a crate of stuffed Santa bears labeled “Holiday and Hanukkah 21” Plush Snuggles Santa.” In an effort to cover all the bases, the fine people at Petco neglected to realize that Santa is purely associated with Christmas, not some general “holiday” and definitely not Hanukkah.
Let me be clear: I have no problem with a genuinely well-intentioned “happy holidays” message. If you are greeting someone and you’re not sure which holidays they celebrate, or if you’re in a mixed group of people from various different faiths, it certainly works to cover your bases.
My gripe is with the unfettered “holiday” labeling of blatant Christmas items. By changing the message to “happy holidays” but not the recognizably “Christmas aesthetic,” it creates a false notion that unique and distinct religious observances are really just variations on a Christian norm. Put another way, lumping Hanukkah and Christmas into the term “holidays” creates a false notion that Hanukkah is just Christmas for Jewish people.
There’s nothing wrong with selling Christmas merchandise, just like there’s nothing wrong with selling Hanukkah stuff, but we don’t need to pretend that these things are one and the same.
I want the labels we use to reflect the reality we are creating, and it really shouldn’t be that hard. Is it red and green with pine trees on it? Christmas! Is it blue and white with dreidels on it? Hanukkah! Is it non-denominational-yet-festive silver with touches of red and green and blue and gold? Now that, my friends, is a “holidays” display.
Christmas has become so ingrained in American culture that a lot of people, particularly those who celebrate Christmas, have divorced it from its religious roots and assume it’s as much of an American holiday as Thanksgiving. In doing so, they assume that Christmas decorations and Christmas music represent all of the holidays — and speak to all different faith groups — without ever asking themselves if they actually do or taking the time to learn that they don’t.
Do I want Hanukkah to become as commercialized as Christmas? Absolutely not. But if Christmas is going to be as ubiquitous as it is, and Hanukkah is going to be included in the “holiday” label, I would like for it to get at least a little love. Alternatively, we could stop kidding ourselves and switch back from “Happy Holidays” to “Merry Christmas” so at least I can go back to feeling plain old ignored instead of misrepresented and ignored.