2017 minus 05: Chanukah vs Christmas

Posted: 27 December 2016 in 2017 minus

I meant to tell this story before Christmas, on the eve of Chanukah, but just plain forgot. But since it came up a couple of times over the festive break, I figured I might as well tell it now.

Oh, just before I get to that, Chanukah/Hanukah/Hannuka… which is it? Short answer: any and all. Thing is, however it’s spelled in English, it’s a Hebrew word, and transliteration from Hebrew is always difficult, in part because English doesn’t really have a single letter, or even pair or letters, to always denote the hard “ch” sound. I tend to use “Chanukah” because that’s how I first learned the transliteration. Americans tend to use Hannukah, or drop the middle ‘n’. Mark Parisi nailed it in the cartoon over to the side…

So… if you’re Jewish, and it’s Christmas time, sooner or later, you’ll be told that you should celebrate Christmas. Not only because it’s so far removed from Christianity, but because people – often from the best of motives – genuinely believe that Christmas is solely about peace and goodwill to everyone and who wouldn’t want to a) share in that and b) promote that to everyone else?

The problem is – well, one problem is – that Christmas is, well, Christmas. It’s functionally and mostly inseparable from the birth of Jesus, and while I share Mitch Benn’s view on the modern True Meaning Of Christmas (below) I’m Jewish; growing up in what is still at least nominally a Christian country has led to some… interesting experiences at Christmas.

For a start, there were my schooldays. Unlike my lad, I didn’t go to a faith school, or at least not one that was specifically and solely aimed at one faith. I went to local junior and senior schools which while – again nominally – weren’t specific to any faith, we had C of E assemblies and the whole paraphernalia that accompanies that. And, of course, come December, we had the ritual of endsuring Christmas Cards. And yes, I sent them, and received them. There was, of course, a little postbox in class and everyone got the same number of cards. Everyone got 29 cards… and was delighted to get those 29 cards and you never really realised you only got those 29 cards because you were a child and there were 30 in the class.

Well, I say ‘delighted’. Even as a relatively small child, as a Jewish kid in a Christian country, whose classmates knew you were Jewish, you quickly discovered who were the dicks in the class. You might not know yet who’d be your ‘friends for life’ but you discovered who the dicks were. They were the kids who sent you Christmas cards with Jesus on them.

There were plenty of cards you could have been sent. Some had Santa on them, some had a robin redbreast, some had holly, some landscapes of snow covered valleys and hills. And some had the baby Jesus. And there was a pretty much 100% correlation between those kids who didn’t like you and those kids who sent you ‘baby Jesus’ Christmas cards.

But, I digress.

For some time, when I was on CompuServe, I helped run their Jewish Forum. For the main part, it was an enjoyable experience. Occasionally you’d get someone coming into the place merely seeking to cause trouble, often by attempting to proselytise but that was only to be expected. On the whole, Jews not only don’t proselytise, but take a rather dim view of those who do. We tend to work on the principle of “look, we don’t tell non-Jews they should be Jewish, so we don’t take it when non-Jews tell Jews they shouldn’t be, especially when in the past, the telling Jews they shouldn’t be has been accompanied by punishments, torture, screaming and, you know, killing us.”

The lady I ran the Forum with was a teacher in the United States, but whose children attended a different school from the one at which she taught. (I’m embarrassed to say that I just typed “at which she teached” before my mind went NOOOOOO! and I caught it…) Anyway, moving swiftly on.

Anyway… comes parents’ evening and C (her initial) went along with her husband to her children’s school where she was informed, rather disappointingly, by her child’s teacher that her kid “didn’t partake in the Christmas celebrations and didn’t want to take part in the nativity or anything!”

C, assuming the teacher had just missed the point, said “well, no. She’s Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas at home.”

The following exchange then ensued:

Teacher: Well, maybe you should.
C: I don’t think so. As I say, we’re Jewish.
Teacher: Well, if you celebrated Christmas at home, she would fit in more at school.
C (now getting exasperated if not actually annoyed): As Jews, we celebrate Hannukah but…
Teacher: But Hannukah is just the Jewish Christmas, isn’t it?
C: Not really, no.
Teacher: Isn’t it?
C: No. Christmas is about peace and goodwill to all men.
Teacher: Yes, and…?
C: Hannukah is about picking up a sword and defending yourself against people trying to impose their religion on you.

C smiles sweetly.

Teacher: Ah. Oh. [pause] Right, so, let’s talk about her math homework.

And that’s how I want to respond every time someone tells me Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas”. Yes, there are presents exchanged, although Chanukah tends to be more about giving presents to children over the eight nights of the festival. It’s not exclusively about children, but the focus is more on that. So yes, it involves exchanges of presents, and it’s an opportunity – as many religions have, suggest and mandate – for people to kick back and chill out at the end of the year.

What Chanukah is not, most decisively though, is “the Jewish Christmas”.

See you tomorrow… as we near the end of this seventy-five day countdown…

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

  1. You’d think that, with 2500+ years of the Latin alphabet, and all the accented characters and offshoot glyphs developed for the hundreds of languages that use it, we’d have figured out a glyph to fit that hard “ch” by now. Not even in the International Phonetic Alphabet?

    Yeah, I’m getting nerdy about this two years late. (Thank/Blame) Ian Gould for reminding me this entry was still here. :-)

    Wishing you the best of this season in any case…

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