In 1860s Cincinnati, Rabbi Max Lilienthal noticed that many Jews were enjoying German Christmas customs, with decorated trees and a Kris Kringle figure. Having preached in some churches, he also noticed the tendency toward Christmas festivities and gifts that kept children interested in religion and their church.
Why not, he said, have Hanukkah festivals and pageants, with gifts for the kids?
“The children shall have it as a day of rejoicing [in] our religion,” Lilienthal explained. “Chanukah can be celebrated to delight young and old.”
In Baltimore, future Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, too, believed that Hanukkah celebrations needed to be reshaped in line with Christmas ones.
“Christmas truly fulfills its mission of bringing peace and good will to men. All this and more, Chanuka should be to us,” she wrote in the New York Jewish Messenger in 1879.
And in 1940s New Orleans, there were the “Hanukkah doors,” a tradition among Jewish members of the women’s garden club. The women would cover their front doors with plain brown paper or gift-wrap and then decorate them with Mardi Gras beads, acorns, pine cones, popcorn, drinking straws, beans, rice, bottle tops and whatever else was handy around the house, creating hanukkiyot, scenes of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, the Western Wall or the Eternal Light.
Next to the doors, they’d put an explanation of the image.
Obviously, it’s not just in recent years that Jews have looked to Christmas and decided that Hanukkah should take on more prominence.
Dianne Ashton, a religious studies professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., and editor of the American Jewish History journal, explores those 19th century days in her new book, “Hanukkah in America: A History” (New York University Press), published last month.
The book charts the dynamic of when the holiday “began to evolve from an often neglected occasion in the Jewish calendar to one deemed particularly relevant for American Jews” and the development of Hanukkah celebrations in America through the present time.
“It’s not Jews adopting Christmas. It’s Jews doing something with their own holiday that allows them to be Americans, while still being Jews,” says Ashton, 61. Her mother, back in the 1950s and ’60s, would decorate the family’s Rochester, N.Y., home with blue and white streamers that said, “Happy Hanukkah,” and three-dimensional Stars of David.
While such decorations may echo Christmas decorations, she says, they’re not using crosses and mangers, but rather Jewish symbols.
A Cherry Hill, N.J., resident, Ashton gives two reasons for wanting to write the book. One, she says, is that many Jews feel conflicted about Hanukkah, seeing it as a minor holiday that has been inflated by the American marketplace. Yet, she says, observant Jews are just as likely to make a big deal of the holiday as are secular Jews.
‘It’s Jews doing something with their own holiday that allows them to be Americans, while still being Jews’
Second, she says, books on Judaism overwhelmingly are about the development of Jewish denominations in America, biographies of important rabbis or a history of Jewish movements.
“It seemed to me that a big chunk of history was missing,” she says, one that would look at what ordinary Jews were doing and not just what the rabbis were telling them.
Research for her heavily footnoted book with its 49 pages of notes took her over a 10-year period to historical societies — both Jewish and not — and across the country. Perhaps the only thing surprising is “barely any mention of anyone celebrating Hanukkah at all in their homes” in the 19th century.
As time went on, Hanukkah moved beyond synagogue and home celebrations, becoming part of the national culture as Chabad and then other Jewish groups brought celebrations to the public square. Events outside the home “help Jews avoid feeling ‘invisible’ during the Christmas season,” she writes.
“Encountering the blue-and-white holiday paper goods in stores, the reports on national Hanukkah celebrations, and the advertising for local Hanukkah events in newspapers, Jews see their own holiday embedded in American life.”
The Hanukkah story, with its triumph of religious loyalists, helped encourage American Jews “in the effort to remain Jews,” she writes. The holiday’s domestic focus “enabled them to vivify their familial bonds, and its joyousness helped them to be happy to be Jews at a time when, in the American cultural calendar, they are most conscious of their minority status.”
As for her own celebrations, Ashton and her husband hold an annual Hanukkah party — with guests bringing their own menorahs to light, making for a “good show,” she says. And although she doesn’t have children of her own, her brother has three: “I always had a good time buying them lots of Hanukkah gifts.”