Resisting Assimilation

The true meaning of Chanukah

By tova stabin

There is a Jewish tradition that on the anniversary of a loved one’s death one lights a memorial candle, a yizkor candle. One autumn a few years back, I needed a yizkor candle and walked over to one of our local supermarkets during my lunch break to see if they had one. The branch on the other side of town carried them, so I thought I might find one here.

I didn’t expect the store workers to know about yizkor candles, so I said it was a Jewish memorial candle in a glass often found in the kosher section. They didn’t know what kosher was and brought me to the candle section. I explained again (and again) that it probably wouldn’t be with candles and was usually with Jewish or kosher food items. The saleswoman became exasperated and told me they would have more Jewish items at Christmas time. I assumed she meant Chanukah candles. Before I said something rude, I left.

So, I sighed when I looked at a calendar and saw this year that the days of Chanukah overlapped with Christmas. Jewish holidays move around the Gregorian calendar because of the Jewish calendar’s leap year which adds an extra month seven times during each 19-year period. 

Why the big sigh? Because when Chanukah and Christmas are near each other, it provides more opportunity for people like the saleswoman to think the holidays are the same and that Chanukah is, as I’ve heard, basically Jewish Christmas.

When Chanukah is over before Christmas, even occurring sometimes on Thanksgiving, I can reply to people who say, “Happy holidays” by saying, “Thanks, but my winter holiday was over weeks ago.” 

When the holidays are close together, it’s hard to find a good response. Sometimes, I say Chanukah isn’t really that major a holiday, but thanks anyway. Sometimes I add that the important Jewish holiday seasons are in fall and spring. None of it is satisfying to me and usually not to the greeter, who often is trying to be inclusive.

I hate saying Chanukah is not important because it has importance, and it’s a lovely holiday — candles, dreidels (spinning tops) and greasy foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and suvganiot (jelly donuts). Both my son and grandfather were born on the fifth night of Chanukah, so it’s particularly special to me. But in Judaism, Chanukah is more celebration than holy day and is not mentioned in the Torah.

Ironically, Chanukah celebrates resisting assimilation. In 167 BCE, King Antiochus IV tried to force Jews to assimilate into Greek culture and made it punishable by death for practicing Judaism. The Maccabees led a successful revolt against this oppression. When the Jews re-entered their temple, it was in disarray with only enough oil to light one day. Miraculously, so the story goes, the oil lasted eight days. Thus, eight nights of candle lighting. Because it celebrates fighting assimilation, traditionally you place the Chanukah menorah or Chanukah in your window to proudly be visibly Jewish. Despite this, Chanukah is the Jewish holiday most assimilated into mainstream culture.

Given this history, I’m not sure I feel better when people say, “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” At least if they mention Christmas, I can say, thanks, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I hope your holiday goes well.” Saying happy holidays puts me in a quandary about how to respond and sometimes sets me up as being ungracious. It’s hard to get the nuance of Chanukah without feeling you are dismissing your culture.

I  don’t need blue and white elves, Chanukah tinsel or even people saying happy holidays near Christmas. On the other hand, I am so grateful in the fall during the Jewish High Holy Days when someone says “Happy New Year” or even “Happy holidays.”

 Particularly with the rise of anti-Semitism, I appreciate those people who consider the fullness of the Jewish community, including when and what their holidays are.

Many, many cultures and religions have winter holidays worth finding out about; many involving light during the dark winter days. I love to learn about other people’s traditions and customs and am honored when I am included in their celebrations, Christmas included. My hope is to be respectful of what different communities observe and find important not only in the winter, but all year round. That’s something we all could celebrate. ν

tova stabin recently retired from being the Communications Manager for Equity and Inclusion at the University of Oregon. She is a freelance writer and sometime photographer. She’s a Jewish lesbian active locally and nationally in the Jewish and lesbian communities. You can see her talk From the Back of the Room: The Jewish Working class at 

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