By Zanna Linskaia
Just recently, during Chanukah holidays my non - Jewish friend asked me - “Is Chanukah like a Jewish Christmas?" I was surprised by this question and decided to find - is there a real connection between Jews and Christmas. For majority of Christian people December 25 is a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who was a Jew as well as his 12 apostles.
Jewish exiles from the different countries and their life in diaspora during the centuries made them more secular and consider relations to the wider society accepting their festivities. Others rejected the rituals and symbols of Christmas, while some people mixed celebration of Chanukah and Christmas.
In Western Europe, for instance, German Jewish elite, trying to demonstrate secular inclusion in society, began to decorate Christmas trees in their homes. Fanny Amstein, the founder of Austrian Music Society, was among the first Jews introducing Christmas traditions. Incredibly, the father and the author of modern Zionism, Teodor Herzl used to place a Christmas tree at his home. When chief rabbi of Vienna visited him during December in 1895 and saw this symbol of Christmas, he was in shock. Even the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem grew up in Berlin home with Christmas traditions but later rejected his family habits by attending Jewish Maccabee balls.
Celebration of Christmas in North America from 19th century began to change from religious traditions to a secular national holiday with boxing days, gift-giving, Santa Claus, stockings on the fireplaces. Some Jewish families in New York, San Francisco, Las Angeles, Toledo incorporated Christmas with Chanukah, decorating Christmas trees, hanging wreaths on the doors, lighting the menorahs and giving gifts to children. In 1878 Chicago Jewish Temple had placed Chanukah tree with candles and greens to cover huge menorah. Gifts were given to children making them immune against envy of Christian kids who celebrated their Christmas. Before WWII Hollywood Jewish families hosted balls on Christmas season with lavish dinners, dances and concerts.
Milton Matz, rabbi of Reform Judaism and clinical psychologist, wrote in his essay that for 2nd generation of American Jewish parents it is important to have Christmas tree at their homes for their kids as contradiction “between Americanism and Jewish ethnicity.”
Now days, for Jewish communities Chanukah, an ancient minor Jewish holiday, became an alternative to Christmas. Through Christmas season we are doing mitzvot - volunteering, visiting ill people, buying and giving presents for poor - combination of Jewish “tikun olam”- repairing the world with Christmas joy to the people.