Over the recent holiday season, I read Dianne Ashton’s Hanukkah in America, which chronicles the history and development of Hanukkah (mainly in the United States) from its origins over 2000 years ago up through nearly present day.
For most of that time, Hanukkah was a fairly minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, perhaps not celebrated at all. Two catalysts worked together to encourage Jewish immigrants in the United States to make a bigger deal out of Hanukkah than their European ancestors had: their desire to retain and promote their own religious and cultural values; and Christmas.
Christmas also had not always been the major gift-giving, family-oriented holiday that we know today, but through the 1800s into the early 1900s it grew, for various reasons, including corporations turning it into a commercial event (as Charlie Brown might be all too familiar with!), and for the benefit of U.S. soldiers, either being sent Christmas care packages when abroad, or having more substantial family events when home.
As the appeal of Christmas events grew, and especially as the wonder of Christmastime grew in the eyes of children, Jewish children longed for something similar. They found what Christian families enjoyed in midst of winter to be enticing.
Many Jewish holidays have strict guidelines regarding what to do; if the holiday is traditionally observed, there is little or no room to modify how it is celebrated. Not so with Hanukkah, which was hardly celebrated at all. Thus there was room for Jews in the U.S. to adapt Hanukkah to meet their present-day needs, including more appeal to children.
Besides the appeal of Christmas, many Jewish people were feeling distant from their religious and social traditions, and their overall Jewish identity began to wane in the new homeland. This ended up being another opportunity for Hanukkah to grow, not only for children, but as a holiday for Jews of all ages to reflect on who they were as a people, and to strengthen family bonds.
A delightful read! Also available in electronic form.