Who’s Got Hanukkah Envy?
As the Festival of Lights gains exposure in schools, stores, and public displays, even non-Jews want to take part
Of course, the most basic form of Hanukkah envy is gift envy, as many gentiles assume that all Jewish kids get eight times the presents. (Not true, said Ashton: Though there may be a large gift or two, Jewish parents tend to give practical—read: boring— Hanukkah gifts, like socks or pajamas.)
For some non-Jews, Hanukkah is a convenient foil for the increasing commercialization of Christmas. Last year, Catherine Espinosa’s daughter Luna came home from preschool asking about Hanukkah. Though Espinosa was surprised, she wasn’t displeased. “It’s a nice impulse to realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas,” the Queens resident said. “Being a little educated about what other people are doing is part of how we celebrate Christmas.” Luna—after saying she has no intention of giving up Christmas—was singing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” while I conducted the interview with her mom.
Indeed, despite the ubiquity of “The Dreidel Song” in areas with large Jewish populations, Hanukkah has not, as most red-state residents can attest, reached parity with Christmas. “Christmas is America’s most popular holiday,” said Plaut. “Hanukkah is a holiday belonging to a cultural minority group. While they might compete, they are not on par with each other.”
At the same time, even as the array of Hanukkah-themed products grows, the holiday faces less danger of secularization—the way most Christmas celebrations today revolve around Santa, Rudolph, and presents, with no mention of Jesus. “I think Hanukkah actually has more depth and more meaning for American Jews than the commercialization often suggests,” said Ashton. “A lot of the fun occurs at home, at synagogue, at community events, and will have some religious objects and songs.”
Nonetheless, Hanukkah is becoming ever more fixed in the national holiday pantheon. Two years ago, there was the viral Hanukkah hit song “Candlelight,” by the Maccabeats; this season, DC Comics embraced the Festival of Lights with a Hanukkah-themed issue of Green Lantern: The Animated Series. The comic’s writer, Ivan Cohen, had pitched three Christmas stories and one Hanukkah story; editor Kristy Quinn, in the spirit of “inclusion,” opted for the Hanukkah story. “I like Christmas as much as the next kid, but there are lots of traditions,” she said. “Celebrating some of those differences was a natural fit for a comic like Green Lantern, where most of the crew isn’t from Earth.”
Jiming Liang doesn’t know yet whether Hanukkah will enthrall her son Aidan again this year. But if his love of beyblades and his previous enthusiasm for the holiday are any indication, she should probably steel herself for another eight-day round of dreidels, menorahs, and questions.
“He was asking me, ‘Why can’t we be Jewish?’ ” Liang said with a laugh, thinking back to last December when she had to explain that she’s not Jewish—she’s Chinese.
Then again, young children can be fickle. “Once we brought up the bacon issue,” Liang said, “he dropped the whole thing.”
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Video: How to fry up a batch of perfect potato pancakes this Hanukkah—and don’t forget the applesauce