Chinese Food for the Holidays
A Phoenix man celebrates the holidays with Chinese food and a lit Christmas tree/Chanukah bush in the background. (photo: Daniel Greene/Flickr)

Chanukah begins on Wednesday night this year. Tonight. December 1st. Yes, it is confusing. Even we Jews are confused. Why — everyone is wondering — does Chanukah coincide with Christmas some years and, in other years, Chanukah arrives weeks before?

The answer is that the Jewish calendar is different from the secular calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and the secular calendar is solar. Since each Jewish month is only 28 days long and the secular months are 30 or 31 days long, after a few years the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar become out of sync. The Jewish calendar corrects this by actually adding an extra month every few years in order to get things back to normal. This spring, there will be an extra Jewish month (Adar II) added, and, by next Chanukah, Christmas and Chanukah will coincide once more.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chanukah is really a very minor holiday in the Jewish year. The Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover are much more important than Chanukah. But due to its (sometimes) proximity to Christmas, Chanukah has become much more important than it was originally intended to be, especially in the United States.

And then, of course, there are the presents. Eight nights of presents. Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood, the only way my parents could convince us that celebrating Chanukah was a good thing compared to our neighbors’ exciting Christmas celebrations was by giving us eight presents: one for each night of Chanukah. Yes, our neighbors had the Christmas tree. Yes, they had Santa Claus. Yes, they hung stockings by the fire with care. Yes, they had Christmas carols. Yes, they had the beautiful decorative lights hung on the bushes and trees. But we had eight nights of presents.

In general, Chanukah traditions are much simpler than Christmas traditions. You light the Chanukah menorah. You sing some songs. You spin the dreidel (a special top). You eat chocolate gelt (coins). You eat potato latkes (pancakes). You get some presents. You give some presents. Repeat for eight nights. End of story.

Christmas traditions seem much more complicated and stressful to me. Procuring, transporting, and putting up a live tree in your living room. Decorating the house, inside and out. Buying expensive presents for everyone in your family. Cooking a special Christmas meal. Traveling to be with family. The whole Santa Claus thing. On the other hand, Christmas takes up a huge chunk of space in the American consciousness. It’s really, really hard to be left out of the Christmas festivities when all the radio stations are playing Christmas music, every other TV show is about Christmas, houses are decorated with Christmas lights, every store is loaded with Christmas paraphernalia of all kinds, everyone wishes you Merry Christmas, etc.

As a child, I really, really, really wanted to celebrate Christmas. In spite of the eight nights of presents. I wanted a tree. I wanted a stocking. I wanted Santa. I wanted all of it. Now that years have passed and I have a child of my own, I think things are somewhat better in our multicultural, pluralistic, internet-connected world.

My son is interested in Christmas, but he doesn’t seem quite as jealous as I remember feeling growing up. We generally celebrate Christmas with a close family friend, and, after decorating her tree and exchanging presents, he seems to have had enough of Christmas for one year. But the “December dilemma” remains. What does it mean to be Jewish during a prolonged, public, and pervasive holiday season? It becomes even more complicated for interfaith couples, now a large proportion of Jewish families. Do they buy a Christmas tree even though they are also celebrating Chanukah? Do Christmas ham and potato latkes go together? Can Santa visit as well as Judah Maccabee? I’m not sure if we will ever solve the “December dilemma” here in the United States.

Meanwhile, I’ll sing along to Christmas carols on the radio, enjoy the pretty lights around town, wish my neighbors Merry Christmas, light the candles, spin the dreidel, eat latkes, and hope that the next generation does it even better.

Adena Cohen-BearakAdena Cohen-Bearak is a public health researcher at the Center for Applied Ethics at Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts by day. By night, she blogs about motherhood, Judaism, public health issues, and her recent experience with breast cancer at MotherThoughts.

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We have lifelong friends who are Jewish and celebrate Chanukah. My family celebrates Christmas. For the last 16 years we have had a joint celebration where we each share our faith traditions, celebrating God's good gifts of wealth in friends, who choose to find joy in the similarities rather than the differences. I agree with you that Christmas traditions are getting way out of hand and stressful. Thanks for the reminder that our celebrations can be delightfully simple and in that respect have greater meaning and moments to just be with one another.

My wife (Jewish, returned to Judaism via Jewish Renewal) and I (Unitarian Universalist) have spent the last couple of late Decembers escaping to Mexico or South Beach to escape the din of commercial Christmas. But in truth, neither the Chanukha myth & ritual nor the two Christmas myths and the ritual -- even in their best songs, decor and comportment -- do anything for us. Oh, we like the playfulness of the lights (mostly) and the smell of evergreens. But that's overshadowed or over-noised by all the rest, and this year an escape is not in the cards.

So we're in the process of inventing our own celebration, sort of in self-defense. I mean, Christmas always comes on gangbusters. We're still putting it together, and won't have it together in time for this year. At this point we're looking at nine days of special awareness (because it's not 8 days of Chankah nor 12 days of Christmas), happening somewhere around the solstice, and a special meal to which we invite 1 to 3 friends to fete one or all of them and give them a special gift in thanks for the gift they are in our lives, or the gift they are in the community.

And that's as far as we've got. But it's kind of fun to let this alternative personal winter festival emerge and take shape.

We celebrate Christmas. Our youngest daughter always was invited to friend's house for Chanukah and brought home some yummy potato latke leftovers if there were any. The rest of us never really got into it (we weren't invited anyway) but she had a wonderful time.
Passover is another story. We started celebrating a family "mini-Passover" so our daughters would appreciate their heritage even if we weren't Jewish. Over the years that turned into a major full blown messianic style Passover with a big table surrounded by friends and family. My girls have confessed that while Christmas and Easter are nice, the non-commercialized Passover Seder has become their favorite holiday, one not to be missed. That doesn't bother me in the least.

A very good post. We are a traditional Jewish home where all the festivals are celebrated with fervor. When someone innocently mentioned to my 10 year old son today that kids who celebrate both are the luckiest because they get the most presents, he told me later that he disagreed. "It seems like it would be really confusing. People should celebrate one or the other" We too think the lights are pretty and the music is lovely. We can appreciate them, but they are not for us.

There is Christmas and then there is the commercialization of Christmas. As a Christian I am more than willing to withdraw from the secular Celebration of Christmas and focus on the religious aspects. It is much more sane and meaningful and a lot less crazy. Don't let the celebration of Christmas or Chanukah be spoiled by the pressure to buy gifts and enjoy the spiritual importance of these holidays.

Thank you for your wonderful article. As I look around at all the Christmas decorations that have been up since BEFORE Halloween, I am reminded that Jews are a minority in this country. Christmas is beautiful, but for me, personally, it is irrelevant. At an event many years ago, a woman sitting next to me told me that she felt so sorry for me, that I didn't celebrate Christmas. I hold her not to worry; while Chanukah isn't marketed the way Christmas is, we Jews do alright. On the upside, as a Jew, I do have my own traditions: On Christmas Day, I eat Chinese food and go see a movie. I am also the go-to person at work, offering to fill in around Christmas when others are getting ready for their holiday or traveling to see family. It's good be Jewish!

Amen Sister! Well said and potato latkes eight nights in a row work for me!

When my Jewish children were in a secular nursery school, the teacher asked me to come in and explain Hannukah. I brought my guitar, a menorah and some dreidels along with a picture book that explained the story, causally mentioning that in America, we exchange small gifts over the 8 nights of the holiday. I thought the children had a nice time learning about Jewish holiday traditions. In the spring, while waiting to pick up my children from school, I got into a discussion with another mother about my plans for Passover. Suddenly, a woman yelled "You're the one!". It seems I'd "ruined" her Christmas, because her 4-year-old was much more excited about 8 nights of gifts and a spinning top than a tree and a visit to Santa Claus. She wasn't exactly interested in a lesson about multi-culturalism as she chewed me out. My children are grown now, with families of their own. Unlike that women from years past, they are comfortable with the cultures of others while celebrating their own.

The reason there is no December Dilemma is that late December is everyone's holiday. The reason for the season is the Winter Solstice, the original December celebration. All of us live on Earth, so it "belongs" to all of us; for those in the Southern Hemisphere, it's the Summer Solstice. Humanity desperately needs to get back in touch with the rhythms of nature and honor them. We are part of the Earth, not separate from it. Dissocating from nature has led humanity to a dangerous environmental precipice. The Sun returns for all of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and we all have the right to honor and celebrate it.

The answer to the so-called December dilemma is not to build up Hanukah to parallel Christmas, for--as you have pointed out--it can never measure up to Christmas' grandeur.  Our parents were in error to do this for us and we would be in error to do this for our children.  Agrandizing Hanukah into a "Jewish Christmas" only serves to emphasize that which is seemingly lacking in Hanukah.  The answer to "December dilemma" is instead to fully celebrate the other more meaningful yet less observed holidays throughout the Jewish year.  When your children camp out in a hut on Sukkot, dance with scroll and flags on Simhat Torah, masquerade and listen to the melodrama on Purim, engage in a symposium on freedom and responsibility on Passover, and become a link in the chain of scholarship throughout the night of Shavuot then they will look upon Christmas as a quaint expression of American consumerism.  Jews, atterall, set out a feast to rival Christmas every week: we call it Shabbat.  Observe these things and there is no December dilemma.

An unfortunate result of our parents' mistake is that the Hanukah/Christmas comparison is now out of our hands.  Hanukah is now promoted in the mass media as the "Jewish Christmas".  As Jews, we need to fight back against this forced assimilation as the Maccabees fought the forced assimilation of the Helenists by advocating against the so-called "War on Christmas". Say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays", do not stand for menorahs or dreidels alongside Christmas trees, and make sure that your office has a "Christmas party" instead of a "Holiday party".  Embracing Christmas is--ironically--the best solution to the December dilemma.

I appreciate the thoughtful reply, Steven. A question for you: I recall Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentioning that "Tabernacles" (Sukkot, right?) is one of the three major holidays in the Jewish calendar. In your experience, is this a universally accepted truth by Jews in the U.S.?

My boys attend a Jewish Community Center for pre-school and I've gained a great appreciation for Sukkot, but I never got the sense from this community of how important it is in this regard. Nevertheless, it's offered me some wonderful moments of building sukkahs together with my children and also for them to teach me some of the meaning that they find relevant in their learnings. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Chag Sameach!

It depends on whether you are looking at things from a theological perspective or a sociological perspective.  Rabbi Sacks is correct from a theological standpoint that Sukkot (i.e. Tabernacles) along with Shavuot (i.e. Pentacost) and Pesah (i.e. Passover) are the three major holidays on the Jewish calendar.  However, most American Jews are not versed enough in their heritage to know that fact and so two out of three pilgrimage festivals are all but ignored by the non-Observant.  The "Hallmark Holidays" that have survived have done so for sociological reasons:  Hanukah because of its proximity to Christmas, Passover because its rites are home-based, and Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur because of a sense of once-a-year obligation to come to the synagogue on the High Holidays (though attendance during the High Holidays is actually declining among Generation X and younger).

I find it interesting that you send your children to the preschool at the JCC.  Is your spouse Jewish?  What made you choose the JCC?

When I married into my Jewish family, I wondered how it would all be managed.  It was - and continues to blend quite well.  We respect each other and honor each others traditions.  The lighting of candles and prayers, for instance, brings a few moments of quiet to the craziness of Christmas. It reminds me that this small family beginning in a manger is Jewish.