When did Hanukkah become important to American Jews?

I read a Time magazine article from the 40s recently about Jews celebrating Christmas. It stated many rabbis were concerned that about half of American Jews were celebrating Christmas. One thing the article didn’t mention at all was Hanukkah. I know the importance of Hanukkah to Jews is a relatively new development, but when did it happen? Was it a conscious effort by religious leaders? Did American Jews celebrate Hanukkah at all in the early 20th century?

Bolding mine. Huh? Explain please.

Not in the sense that Hanukkah is a new holiday, but in the sense its importance among Jews is a relatively new development. According to many surveys, the percentage of American Jews who celebrate Hanukkah is second only to Passover. Virtually everything I’ve read about the subject indicates Hanukkah wasn’t nearly as well celebrated in the 18th or 19th century.

Just as an anecdotal point, my father, who was a young boy in the 1930’s and 40’s, tells stories of his family’s Hanukkah celebrations, and some of the traditions that my family observes are derived directly from his childhood experiences. So at least some Jews were observing Hanukkah with food, song, games, etc. at least that early.

IIRC, most Jews did not celebrate Chanukah prior to World War I. It was only celebrated by the most devout and there was a belief that the holiday would soon be forgotten. It started coming back after that, and became standard after WWII, as a reaction to all the Christmas advertising (one article called it the Jewish form of Kwanzaa – a holiday used to celebrate your heritage, though it was based on an already existing holiday). Jewish children started asking their parents why they didn’t get Christmas gifts, so they used Chanukah as a way to satisfy those desires without celebrating Christmas.

Chanukah is a very minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but its timing made it useful to counteract all the Christmas advertising.

I’d like to know the answer to this myself. AFAIK, lighting 8 candles and frying up latkes go back centuries. The exchanging of presents is a much more recent addition.

Keep in mind that Christmas itself wasn’t a big deal in the US from colonial times to the 19th century. Many of the religious groups that settled here and influenced so much of the early culture disapproved of wild celebrations, Christmas among them, so it fell out of favor until Charles Dickens and Coca-Cola brought it back. Wikipedia explains it better than I could.

Prior to Christmas becoming so over the top, Hanukkah was more like Purim or Sukkot, a festival celebrated by the more observant. There was latke and candles, of course, but also the tradition of giving the children money in the form of coins to play the dreidel game. The giving of coins to kids every night became presents every night and then presents exchanged between adults too.

Years ago I opted out of all of that bullshit with my family. I declared that I didn’t want gifts from adults or anyone else and that I wasn’t giving gifts to adults. I do give presents to my ever growing hoard of nieces and nephews.

I’d imagine it had something to do with the Jewish children being jealous and arguing with their parents over why all the other kids on the block were getting bombarded with gifts, while they were getting Latkes. :smiley:

Commercialization changed Christmas too. I think if Hanukah lagged behind that it was only because the population density of Jews wasn’t yet large enough to jump start the same kind of cultural change.

It was around the 1920’s that Christmas started to be thought of as a holiday to be celebrated by everybody in the U.S. Jews were starting to be thought of as a part of mainstream America, and many people wanted to make it clear that they could celebrate it too. Christian aspects of Christmas were downplayed in general. Most of what we think of as the standard Christmas carols were written between the 1920’s and the 1950’s, and many of them were written by non-religious Jews. This isn’t as surprising as it may seem, since a lot of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters were Jewish. (Tin Pan Alley was the area of New York City where the writers of Broadway musicals and popular songs were concentrated.) Look how little the carols from that era make reference to any Christian themes. They’re about Santa Claus, gift giving, family celebrations, and winter. It was this era, and not the present, when there were the clearest attempts to “take Christ out of Christmas.” The emphasis on Hanukkah was a reaction by some Jews to make it clear that they didn’t want to celebrate Christmas.

IIRC “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” was written by the Jewish Burl Ives.

White Christmas was written by the Jewish Oyving Boylin.

I may be wrong on this one. I cannot find a good cite. According to Wikipedia, his father’s first name was Levi. But, that’s not a definite sign.

Here are a couple of general discussions about Jewish writers of Christmas carols:


Most Jewish people I know consider Hanukkah something you do for the kids.


According to Wendell Wagner’s cites, Holly Jolly Christmas was indeed written by a Jew. That Jew was Johnny Marks.

Still wondering if Burl Ives was Jewish.

Previous thread. Same title just two years ago.

My post then. Linking to this answer.

Sukkot isnt still for the devout is it? Its like thanksgiving in a tent as far as I can tell and not particularly religious.

I am British and not Jewish, but I have Jewish relatives (my mother’s sister had married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism) and there was a moderately large Jewish community in my home town and a fair proportion of Jews in my high school class. (I finished high school in 1970.) I had a number of Jewish friends in college and briefly dated a Jewish girl during that period in the early 1970s. My family would celebrate Christmas every year with our Jewish relatives (and they lived fairly close, so we often saw them at other times). I do not recall ever hearing any mention of Hanukkah from any of the Jews I knew through the 1960s and early 1970s.

I do, vaguely recall hearing a news segment on TV, probably sometime in the early to mid '70s, mentioning that some rabbis (I think initially in America) were beginning to promote the idea of making the minor Jewish holiday Hanukkah into a sort of Jewish Christmas, with gift giving, I think specifically to counter what they feared was a potential Christianizing influence of all the very public Christmas celebrations on Jewish children. Over the next few years following that, I began to hear more and more about Hanukkah, and menorahs began to appear amongst the public Christmas decorations in the period before Christmas.

In short, in Britain at least I do not think most Jews made much of an issue of Hanukkah before the 1970s. My impression is that the “tradition” of doing so, of making it an alternative to Christmas, was something that was quite deliberately promoted by Jewish leaders, first of all in America in the early 1970s or possibly the later 1960s. It seems to have been taken up by British Jewry quite soon after. The process was probably helped along by all the general promotion of multiculturalism that going on in that period, in the wake of the successes of the black civil rights movement of the 1960s.

I am not at all surprised to hear that the OP did not find Hanukkah mentioned in an article about Jews and Christmas from the 1940s. It probably would not have been mentioned in one from the 1950s and maybe not event the 1960s either.