The Case for Jews

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  and Christmas Presents  

DOUG: I've figured out what I want for Christmas
MOM: You mean what you want for Hanukkah
DOUG: Let's not have this argument again, Ma
MOM: All right. What would you like?
DOUG: A mezuzah

I'm a Jew in his thirties who doesn't give "Hanukkah Presents". I give Christmas Presents. In exactly 8 paragraphs, I am going to use the phrase "ignorant, spineless, and evil" to describe the practice of giving “Hanukkah Presents". If you are a gentile, you shouldn't take offense at this statement. Nobody (well, no reasonable person) expects you to be an expert on Jewish laws or customs. In my opinion, there is no shame in being "ignorant" about the details of somebody else's religion. We can't all be experts on everything. I think you will find the essay interesting. If you are a Jew, you may take offense at the statement. Well, perhaps you should.

To start with, we ask: What is Hanukkah celebrating, anyway? For a holiday with this much press, you would think the answer is common knowledge. For example, everybody knows that Easter is celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, that New Year's Eve is celebrating the beginning of a New Year, and that Christmas is celebrating the appropriation of the Pagan solstice by the Catholic Church after they were unsuccessful at canceling the annual Pagan celebration, laying the idea of Christ's birthday on top of the existing holiday even though they knew that, according to the New Testament, Jesus was born in the Summer, not in December.

Surprisingly, if you ask most people what Hanukkah is about, they say it is celebrating the fact that an oil lamp burned for 8 days when it should have burned only 1 day. That is equivalent to someone saying that Thanksgiving is celebrating the fact that we get to eat Turkey, or that Labor day is celebrating a day off of school and the Jerry Lewis telethon. The oil-lamp miracle is only one of the trappings; it is not what the holiday is about. (This seems like a good time to quote a great Saturday Night live sketch. The whole cast is gathered around an oil lamp, dressed as ancient Jews)

JOHN BELUSHI: Wow, the lamp has burned 8 days.
GARRETT MORRIS: This is really starting to look like a miracle.
DAN ACKROYD: We should make a holiday based on it.
GARRETT MORRIS: What should we call it?
JOHN BELUSHI: Hey, why don't you come up with a name, Hanukkah?

Here's the story of Hanukkah in a nutshell: The Jews were living just fine and happy in Israel, their ancient homeland. The Greeks took over, and said, "You have to act like Greeks now, not like Jews." The Jews said, "2 - 4 - 6 - 8 we will not assimilate." The Greeks tried to make them. At one point, a woman named Hannah was taken with her five sons. The Greek commandant said to the oldest son, "Look! This 'other' white meat is called 'pork'. We Greeks eat it all the time. Have some." "No" said the oldest son, and he was killed. This happened to the second, third and fourth sons. Son number 5 was only a child, about your age. (No matter how old I was, Grandma said he was about my age. If she were telling me the story today, I bet Hannah's youngest son would be in his thirties.) The Greek commander tried to get him to eat the ham, and he wouldn't. He didn't want to kill the last son, so he told Hannah, "Talk some sense into the boy." She said, "Don't you DARE eat that." The child refused, and was killed, as was his mother.

THAT is what Hanukkah is about.

The tale of Hannah and her sons galvanized the Jewish people. The great general Judah took some guerilla troops, and began striking at the Greeks, then retreating before they knew what hit them. His troops were called the Macabees, because they struck hard as a hammer, and then drew back. Eventually, the Greeks said, "To heck with this. Let's go whomp on someone else." and they left Israel. The Jews rededicated all their desecrated temples, and relit the Eternal flame. There only was one tin of sacred oil left, but it lasted (by a miracle) eight days, long enough for the Jews to get more.

Hanukkah is not about the oil lamp. Hanukkah is celebrating the fact that Jews are not like gentiles, and cannot be forced to assimilate. Now, if you didn't like this story or its message, then by all means, don't celebrate Hanukkah. You don't have to celebrate it to be Jewish; in fact it is a minor holiday. Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Purim and Sukkoth are all more important holidays. As a Jewish male who doesn't wear a Yarmulke, who eats cheeseburgers, chicken cordon bleu and pork chops, and who paid retail for his television set, it seems odd for me to celebrate a holiday that is all about staying apart from the dominant culture. (I do light the menorah occasionally, because I like to.)

Do I give "Hanukkah presents?" Of course not! Why? Because "Hanukkah presents" are an ignorant, spineless evil practice, as I will discuss below. I have nothing against giving gifts. I enjoy giving gifts. I love receiving them, too. One of my happiest memories was a time when a whole bunch of my college friends had a reunion in Urbana, and we all exchanged presents. Don't you dare accuse me of being against materialism - I have a laser-scanner, four Lava-lites and a Space Ghost action figure, and that's just in my office.

"Hanukkah presents" are ignorant. They are not part of the holiday. There are many pretty little traditions that come with this minor holiday that do not involve buying Pokemon cards. For example, it is customary to play a gambling (Yes! Teaching kiddies to gamble!) game called "dreidel." Everybody antes, and then you spin a top, and put in the pot or take out of the pot, depending on what side of the dreidel shows. Since we don't want children to gamble for real money, we give them some candy to put in the pot. Or Hanukkah Gelt, which is coins made out of chocolate. So, yes, kids do get toy dreidels and chocolate coins and such, but that is not the same thing as a Nintendo 256 game system, wrapped up in paper that is any-color-but-red-and-green-because-that-would-be-Christmassy. If you are a gentile and you thought that "Hanukkah Presents" were part of the holiday, I don't blame you; the media certainly portray it that way. Now you know better. If you are a Jew and thought that, then you should be ashamed of yourself.

"Hanukkah presents" are spineless. Seriously, why do you think that Jews give their loved ones "Hanukkah Presents"? Because they like to give gifts? If that was the reason, then they would be given on Rosh Hashanah (The very important Jewish New Year), or Sukkoth (A very beautiful major Jewish holiday) or Purim (A very festive major Jewish Holiday). No. They are given on the holiday closest to Christmas. Why? Because we want to be like the gentiles.

Picture this: You are a Jewish mom, it is the end of December, your child's friends get presents, and you don't want to be a meany. But you can't give a Christmas Present! What would your grandmother say? So you give a "Hanukkah Present," rationalizing it to yourself. Shame! You're too weak not to give presents, and you're too gutless to admit that you're doing it because the Christians are doing it. How can anybody be this way and have self-respect? As I said earlier, I give Christmas presents. I am secure enough to admit to myself and others that I am bending to my society, and taking on a Christian tradition. I know people who don't (for one reason or another) participate in end of year gift-giving at all. That takes a different kind of strength, and I respect that. But to give Christmas presents, pathetically calling them "Hanukkah Presents" reminds me of a sniveling sidekick in a bad adventure movie. Grow up.

"Hanukkah Presents" are evil. Now, I'm not the kind of person who uses the epithet "evil" lightly. Well, that's not true. I use it pretty often. But THIS time I mean it. Here's why: Hanukkah is about being brave, and refusing to be forced to be like the gentiles. And what are "Hanukkah Presents" about? About knuckling under and being exactly like the Christians. And don't go rationalizing. You know it is true. If it weren't for the Christians inventing that Dec. 25th holiday so they could be more like the Pagans, we Jews would never go out "Hanukkah shopping" to buy "Hanukkah Presents" and "Hanukkah cards" in malls where there are huge lines to sit on Santa's lap. I'm sure it is killing mall-owners that Jewish parents aren't standing in line to buy 5 x 7 glossies of their kids sitting on someone's lap; but within our lifetimes I'm sure that there will be a line for "Hanukkah Harry" photographs. (Mark my words: As soon as Jon Lovitz gives up on his acting career, he will be appearing at Macy's in a fake beard) As I've said, I have nothing against assimilation per se. But celebrating the "Jews would rather die than assimilate" holiday by imitating Christians is just ethically abhorrent. It's like going out to supper to celebrate Yom Kippur.  The Greek commander made a mistake: Rather than threatening Hannah's brave sons, he should have shown them commercials for a Sausage McMuffin or a Burger King Yumbo and seen if Hannah shrugged and bought them Yumbo meals to get the free plastic Judah action figure.

I posted a draft of this essay on soc.culture.jewish, and someone began a reply with the clause: "If a person finds it necessary to buy Hanukkah Presents…" He should have been ashamed. It is necessary to eat. It is necessary to have shelter. It is necessary to add a constant if you are doing an indefinite integral in Calculus. It is not NECESSARY to exchange gifts. If you exchange gifts, you are doing it by choice, so admit it. And, since you are exchanging gifts in December because of Christmas, then admit that too.

Now, what if you are a Christian, and you have Jewish friends? Should you give them Christmas gifts? Hanukkah gifts? Jeez, I don't know. I'd hate to be you. What I would do is ask, "Do you mind a Christmas gift this year, or would you prefer a Hanukkah gift?" If they are ambivalent, then give them the Christmas gift. If they insist on a Hanukkah gift then return the expensive sweater, buy a pretty dreidel and some nice chocolate coins, and deliver them along with some sizzling latkes.

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© Douglas J. Shaw,  2001
with a tip of the Kee-Pah to Rick Audet for a grammar correction