I have an incredibly complicated relationship with Hanukkah (and Christmas, to a certain extent). Raised in a multicultural household with a raised-Catholic-now-atheist Latino father and a Jewish mother, my sister and I got a little bit of both worlds. I had an Easter basket handmade by my Guatemalan grandmother, and I also played with a little wooden Shabbat playset (even though I had no idea what the bread, cup, and candles were meant to signify).
Yet, Hanukkah was always my favorite Jewish holiday we celebrated. I was a big fan of the homemade latkes (and the fact it meant that Christmas was rapidly approaching). In high school, when my friends were confused as to why my family had both a menorah and a Christmas tree, I told them we were “Christmas tree Jewish” — meaning we were pretty secular and went through the basic motions of celebrating all of the holidays but we certainly did not go to synagogue or church. When I asked my mother why we had a tree, she replied that my great-grandparents had probably started the tradition in an attempt to make their kids fit in better and be less of a target for bullies and we just grew to love the tradition over time and kept it up.
An interesting thing has happened over time, as my own personal connection to Judaism has grown, I no longer like Hanukkah. I do not like how it is often commercialized by Americans to make Jews fit in the Christmas season. I feel that ugly Hanukkah sweaters are just a way to capitalize off of a minority who probably wouldn’t be in the market for an ugly Christmas version. I don’t like the constant comparisons between Christmas and Hanukkah; just because there is a tradition of giving and receiving presents during two winter holidays of two of the Abrahamic religions does not mean these two are equal (and besides, the only reason gift-giving became a part of Hanukkah was because of its proximity to Christmas).
Last year, I went on a winter Birthright trip and we got to celebrate the last few days of Hanukkah in Israel. These days and nights were like any other with the exception of seeing sufganiyot (doughnuts) in bake shops and lighting a menorah (or hanukkiah if you want to get technical) with our group before dinner. Some towns had a large hanukkiah set up in their center, but other than that, there was no holiday rush to purchase presents like there is in the States, nor did the people of Israel seem inclined to set aside these days from any other day. Seeing how Israelis celebrated the Festival of Lights solidified my disenchantment with the holiday.
Nowadays, I enjoy celebrating Rosh Hashanah the most, as that was the first holiday that I got to experience with my newfound Jewish college friends and the local synagogue which has become a second home to me. The richness of the holiday is incredible and the chance to step out of the busy rush of life for a second and contemplate is so attractive in the hustle and bustle of today. I enjoy learning about (and celebrating when possible) other holidays that have not been so commercialized in the States, like Tu Bishvat (the birthday for trees, how cool is that?!), Purim (which revolves around the story of Esther), and Tisha B’av (a fast day commemorating the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem). There is so much more to Judaism than Hanukkah, and I feel as if I learn something new every week, if not every day.
Of course, this is not a call for Americans to stop celebrating Hanukkah. In this day and age, you have to take the happy wherever you can. And despite all of this, I am not going to stop wearing the Hanukkah socks and sweaters that I have been gifted over the years. I will still participate in my synagogue’s Hanukkah party. If there is a chance for good food and community, I am there. Assimilation is part of the reason why the Jewish people continue to exist, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting up blue and white lights on your front porch to counter your neighbor’s green and red ones. But I also think it’s important that we be critical of how Hanukkah is marketed to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Celebrate the holiday however you like. Just know that, no, Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It has just been advertised to you that way.