Festival of lights is a festival-lite

By Hadley Freeman, December 18, 2008

With maturity comes the death of happy illusions — this is a truism most people older than five learn, usually after they’ve spotted a Santa Claus sneaking off to have a quiet fag in their local shopping mall. But I truly do believe, without any self-pity or self-centred grandstanding, that Jewish kids have it worse than most. It’s a bitter day when you learn that you’re not, contrary to what your mother always stated, the handsomest, smartest, most desirable person in the world (this, of course, only applies to the boys — some Jewish girls discover the opposite when they realise they’re not the chubbiest, single-est and most-like-your-father’s-sister-Ruth-est gal on the block).

Yet it’s the death of Chanucah that bites most bitterly. If you grow up in a particular type of (usually Reform) household, Chanucah forms the centrepoint of your sense of religion, and that sense could be summed up as follows: Wow, Chanucah! Jewish Christmas! Eight days of presents! Suck on that, goyim classmates!

Chanucah was the one Jewish holiday that seemed enviable to all the Christinas and Marys and Lilys in your class, the ones who would never have to contend with matzoh ball hips or thoughts like, “Hmm, maybe I should start waxing my arm hair, too.” Rosh Hashanah involves eating weird food, Yom Kippur involves eating nothing.

Next to Easter Egg hunts, they don’t do too well. But Chanucah, with songs about dreidels and bags of chocolate coins and EIGHT DAYS OF PRESENTS, well, that rocks the house. But then comes the sad day when you’ve left home and you fully expect to be summoned back to spin the dreidel (and get your presents) when you realise that, actually, Chanucah isn’t the Jewish Christmas at all. It’s barely a Jewish Bank Holiday. Yes, it is a real holiday but one that your parents may have blown a little out of proportion when you were growing up, to compensate for the lack of a Messiah’s birthday to celebrate. And once you’ve left home, OK, they might do a first or last night of Chanucah but generally it goes the sad way of, well, meh.

This seems pretty unfair. After all, Christian kids keep getting Christmas gifts long after the Santa myth has died. Where are my Chanucah presents, dammit? This is not about being materialistic — it’s about religious equality.

Part of the problem is the nature of the holiday. All holidays are meant to celebrated en masse (it’s impossible to do Rosh Hashanah alone: for a start, it’s not so much fun to find the Afikomen if you also hid it). But Chanucah would require you to return to your parents’ house several nights on the trot. This can be a problem if they became friends of the National Theatre as soon as you left home and therefore are seeing Chekhov on Tuesday and Sondheim on Thursday.

This leaves Jewish kids at a most unfair disadvantage. They can only get Chanucah again when they have kids and, unlike Christmas, the gift-giving at Chanucah is all geared one way, from parent to child. Forget about learning your father is Santa. The death of the Chanucah fairy is way more tragic.

Hadley Freeman writes for the Guardian

Last updated: 12:21pm, December 18 2008



Fri, 12/19/2008 - 02:08

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Afikoman on Rosh Hashanah? Must have been very Reform indeed! There is absolutely no halachic basis whatsoever for giving Chanukah presents, aside from Chanukah Gelt, which may commemorate that the Macabees struck new coins as a sign of Jewish independence. Chanukah presents began as a compensation for Jewish children not getting Christmas presents. Surprisingly Christmas is not the major Christian festival -- in fact the Puritans banned Christmas in Boston as pagan superstition. Easter is the genuine focal poinrt of the Christian calendar. Most present day Christmas customs probably date to the 19th Century. The Christmas tree, for instance, arrived in England with Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg Gotha.