Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

A Jewish History of Christmas

This Christmas card shows a father and son from the 1870s, standing outside on a snowy hill. They are wearing wool coats in cream with red accent stripes, and tuques. The son is wearing snow shoes and is standing to the left. Next is his father, carrying the snow shoes. They are followed by a brown dog. In the background, two boys are going downhill on a toboggan. And further in the background there are pine trees topped with snow, and a log cabin with snow on the roof. The card’s sentiment is: “Compliments of the Season,” and in smaller lettering at the bottom, it says “Young Canada on snow shoes.”

Compliments of the Season, Young Canada on Snow Shoes. 1873-1878. Christmas card that was part of G. & W. Clarke’s first Scenic Series. Card has a scene of father and son snowshoeing. Child is a popular image used widely in Canadian imagery, known as “Young Canada”. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Arch. Ref. No. R11648, album 9, item 12 ; Copyright: Expired.

It’s always a little strange being Jewish around Christmas. When I was growing up, Chanukah wasn’t really a big deal. My sister and I would each get a gift (just one, not eight), some chocolate money, and we would light the menorah. My mother would make latkes, but I never really liked them (turns out the problem was her recipe, not latkes in general). Christmas wasn’t really a big deal. We did put out milk and cookies, though in hindsight, this was mostly for my dad. I do remember being convinced by my dad that Santa had to be real, since CTV News was tracking him via radar. But this was pretty much the extent of it. Because Santa didn’t give presents to Jewish girls.

But one year the impossible happened: Santa came! My mother, for reasons that I still don’t know, put out presents on the two living room chairs. One chair was for me, and the other was for my sister. They contained a board game, some other little things, and a chocolate advent calendar. It was magical. I was so excited. Santa didn’t forget me! And while from that point on my mother would always give my sister and I chocolate advent calendars on Christmas, our Christmas chairs remained empty. And yes, my mother is very well aware of how advent calendars work. She’s just repurposed them for our family tradition.

These days, in shopping centres, online stores, and social media, you’ll find a wide array of gifts and decorations specifically for Chanukah. From strings of lights with Stars of David and menorahs, to the hilarious Mensch on the Bench, the options are really quite endless. But this is a very recent phenomenon, as I mentioned last week. I just couldn’t keep  you guys hanging like that! So in today’s blog post, we’re going to take a look at the emergence of Chanukah as an important holiday celebration in North America, its relationship to Christmas, and the religious aspects of Canadian identity.

 

There is one important caveat here. There is an old joke that if you have five Jews in a room, you’ll find six different opinions. The experience of being Jewish in Canada is highly personal, and often depends upon whether you see your Jewishness as cultural, ethnic, or religious, or all of the above. There are also contextual factors, like your religious denomination, where your family comes from, and even the city in which you live. Your experiences, and the experiences of any Jews you know, may be very different.

 

Dreidels, and Gelt, and Menorahs, Oh My!

Traditionally, Chanukah is only a minor Jewish holiday. It commemorates the Maccabean resistance and revolt against the Seleucid Empire in Jerusalem, as well as the rededication of the Temple. Or, as I learned it, a very long time ago, a very bad man named Antiochus invaded Israel. He forbade the practice of Judaism, and defiled the Holy Temple. The eternal light, a lamp flame representing God’s presence that must always remain lit, was extinguished.  But the Jewish people fought back. Young men, called the Maccabees, trained in the hills, preparing for a revolt. And ordinary people would secretly study Judaism, while pretending to be gambling (that’s where the dreidel comes in… no laughing! 😛 ). The evil overlords were so stupid that the Maccabees were able to overthrow them, and drive them out of Israel. The Jewish people then set about restoring Jewish places of worship. When they came to rededicate the Holy Temple, they realized that they only had enough oil to light the eternal light for one day. What’s more, it would take at least eight days for more oil to be acquired. The people of the city lit the lamp anyways, and sent for new oil. This is when a miracle happened, and the oil that was only supposed to last for one day actually lasted for eight, just long enough for new oil to be available. And so every year, we remember this miracle with the eight-day celebration now known as Chanukah.

Expert Tip: Today, Jewish houses of worship are called synagogues. However, these are not the same as churches. Rather, synagogues are intended to be gathering places for prayer and study. This is in contrast to the Holy Temple, which was the centre for the Jewish religion, where priests conducted religious rituals, until its destruction in 70 C.E.. Some Jewish leaders believed that its destruction was a punishment, and that the Temple will only be rebuilt when we have redeemed ourselves. The result being the emergence of synagogues (which is also why rabbis are considered scholars and teachers, not priests). The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is all that remains of the Temple. However, some Reform Jews believe that the Temple’s destruction was not a punishment, and that the Temple will never be rebuilt. So they started calling their houses of worship “temples.”

There are two big things missing here: potatoes and presents. I’ll talk about the potatoes another day, but for now, you’ll notice that nowhere in this story is there anything about presents. That’s because the holiday is supposed to be about the light of God and the resilience of the Jewish people (cue old joke about all our holidays being about attempts to kill us that fail).

 

Chanukah Honey

So where did the presents come into this? That’s because Chanukah has only become an important holiday in response to the commercialization of Christmas. And as so often is the case, this was a trend that started in the United States.

Expert Tip: While Jews in Canada and the United States have a great deal in common, there are some very important differences. American Jewishness was largely shaped by a large wave of German Jews who came in between the 1840s and the 1870s. Canadian Jewishness was largely shaped by a large wave of Eastern European Jews who came between 1880 and 1914. This group of Jews tended to be far more traditional and religious than the immigrants who went to the US. The American Jewry was also heavily influenced by the so-called “melting pot” approach to immigration, which placed a strong emphasis on (at least partial) assimilation. Canadian Jewry, on the other hand, placed a stronger emphasis on preserving a distinct identity. This is, of course, a gross simplification. But in general, Canadian Jews, particularly those from Montreal, were much more traditional, religious, and homogenous than American Jews.

Since Chanukah was only a minor religious holiday, it wasn’t really that important for most Jews who came to North America. Christmas, by contrast, played a much more important role in their minds, and was seen by many as simply an American holiday, with no religious connotations. Beginning in the 1870s, there were concerns about Jews in the United States who put up Christmas trees and exchanged presents. The fact that Christmas was increasingly secularized and commercialized beginning in this era contributed to its popularity among Jews. However, this was a highly contentious practice. Some Jews saw this as evidence of their successful integration into American society, while others saw it as a betrayal of the Jewish people.

In response, community and religious leaders sought to make Chanukah more appealing to prevent Jews from “straying.” This is when we start to see the emergence of synagogue-led celebrations, often aimed specifically at children.[1]  Their success was such that beginning in the 1920s, we start to see advertisements for Chanukah gifts in Yiddish newspapers, particularly from toy manufacturers. Many of these ads were quite explicit in instructing parents to add gift-giving as an American Jewish custom, often as a modification of the more traditional practice of giving Chanukah gelt, a small amount of money, to children to then give to charity.

By this point, the Chanukah snowball was just getting started. It is also in this era that we see dramatic increase in the availability of menorahs of all different shapes and styles.  By the late 1950s, menorahs were joined by all kinds of Chanukah decorations, special dishes (apparently this is where chocolate matzah comes from! If you haven’t had chocolate matzah, you haven’t lived). As Christmas became increasingly commercialized, so too did Chanukah.[2]

Expert Tip: Why Chanukah, you ask, and not another Jewish holiday? This is mostly an accident of timing. There are actually other Jewish holidays that would be better Christmas analogues, like Purim. But they don’t occur around Christmas.

This shift didn’t happen until far later in Canada. It was only in the 1960s that we start to see the emergence of Chanukah parties being held in synagogues, as well as, more tellingly, instructions on how to celebrate Chanukah being printed in synagogue bulletins.[3] This is due in large part to the fact that Canadian Jews saw Christmas as a Christian holiday rather than an American one. It is important to consider the more traditional nature of Canadian Jewry. Keep in mind also that more than half of all Canadian Jews in this era lived in Montreal, where the Catholic nature of Christmas celebration were impossible to ignore. In most cases, celebrations remained quiet, with an emphasis on candle-lighting and maybe some Chanukah gelt that could be used to purchase small treats.

 

Being Jewish at Christmas

While Christmas was not as readily adopted by Canadian Jews as by American Jews, it did still loom large in the imagination. When researching my dissertation, I interviewed a number of Jewish women who grew up in or had children in this era, and their stories about Christmas are both funny and sad. Many enjoyed the festive nature of the season. One interviewee, whom I’ll call Sarah,[4] recalled that she and her husband would bundle the kids into their car, and “drive around certain streets in the area just to show the kids how beautiful the Christmas trees were […] and the lights.” [5] Another interviewee, Debra, really wanted a Christmas tree, and bugged her mother to take her to the Santa Claus parade downtown. She described being forced to sing Christmas carols each year, and really hated it, because she was so envious of the kids who got to celebrate Christmas.[6] School also played a role in how Tamara remembered the holiday, noting that

There was always that consciousness, then Christmas comes, and all your friends are busy, cause most of my friends were not Jewish. And um, even though we had our presents for Chanukah, there’s nothing for you here. I remember one Christmas morning, the saddest story of my childhood, waking up and seeing in the distance, in my fuzzy vision, cause I had glasses since I was two and a half, I saw a pile of brightly coloured things on the dresser. And I thought, [gasp] I have got Christmas after all. Santa’s come to me! It was socks, from the washing machine. [7]

Over time, some Jewish families made their own Christmas traditions. For instance, Laura’s family always used Christmas as a day for being together, since they could be sure that no one would be forced to work. Other families began eating Chinese food on the holidays, and then attending the movies, since those were the only two places that were always open on Christmas. [8] (There is even a song….) Some parents even allowed modified Christmas celebrations, like Linda’s family, who described her family’s tradition as follows:

I could not have been more than six years old, but I suspect I was younger, I think I was five or four. In those days, men wore [wool] socks. […] So on Christmas eve, my parents let us put up two stockings, okay. We hung them on the door to our room, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and in each stocking was, my brother got a box of soldiers, like kids in those days, in the fifties played with soldiers, and I got a box, instead of soldiers, they were little farm animals. I was so excited that Santa Claus came to our house. We only did it once! And my father used to always tell us the story that when he was four years old, he put a stocking up on his crib, so this is 1918, okay. His father was not pleased. And when he got up in the morning, his stocking was filled. And guess what it was filled with? Coal! […] So I think that’s why my father did that for us.[9]

 

Doesn’t Everyone Celebrate Christmas?

While these stories are both charming and at times tragic, there is another part of this story that we need to remember, and that is Christian normalization and Canadian identity. I talked about this briefly in my previous blog post on Thanksgiving, but essentially, Christian normalization refers to a widespread belief that the Christian religion is the default religion. And I can think of no other time of the year when this is as pervasive as Christmas.

We all bemoan the fact that by mid-November, it is impossible to find a store or a shopping centre that is not all decked out for Christmas. While there are occasional menorahs or Stars of David, or more rarely, a kinara, in general, the eye is bombarded with green, red, and gold; Santas and baby Jesuses loom in every corner, and the Christmas music never ends.

But, more importantly, there is a widespread assumption that to be Canadian is to celebrate Christmas. It is actually an official state holiday, and one that is enthusiastically embraced. On my recent visit to Ottawa, I was struck by the Christmas wreaths on the gates at Rideau Hall. Church and state might be separate, but every year, Parliament Hill has dazzling light displays just for Christmas. Most cities have Santa Claus parades, and official Christmas-tree lightings. Victoria even has a lighted truck parade.[10]

Now I want to be clear here that I am not against Christmas, or that I dislike these celebrations. Christmas lights are my crack. I just love them. And many cities now have giant menorahs outside (though this has more to do with Chabad that anything else); even Justin Trudeau lights a menorah each year. But we need to recognize that this Christian normalization is profoundly alienating to non-Christians. There are few other times of the year when we are reminded so forcefully that we exist outside the dominant paradigm. The envy that many Jews felt or feel is not for presents or pretty lights, but for the ease in which the dominant culture can celebrate its own traditions. That is why the stories above are so uncomfortable. They demonstrate this feeling of unease, of otherness, and of a desire to be fully accepted as Canadian.[11]

This normalization is so pervasive that many people don’t even see Christmas as a Christian holiday any more. I cannot tell you how many times I have been informed, “doesn’t everyone celebrate Christmas?” And I can guarantee you that every non-Christian person you have ever met has also had to deal with similar comments. It can be really frustrating when the people around us assume that we share their holidays. The creation of new Jewish traditions around Christian holidays, like my mother and the advent calendars, helped to ease these feelings by creating another sense of solidarity, of shared exclusion. But it doesn’t erase the fact that at this time of the year, we are reminded at every turn that we are Other.

Of course, now I have my very own tree, which my husband and I usually call our Christmakkah tree. It has some the traditional trappings of garlands and lights, but all of the ornaments are simply glass balls or are more winter-themed than Christmas-themed. We light a menorah each year, and my husband makes latkes (from my recipe), but we also exchange Christmas presents and eat turkey. I recently found out that my sister, who is much more traditionally Jewish than I am, now has a Christmas tree for her kids. And I have to admit that this makes me feel really uncomfortable, because I want my nieces and nephew to grow up proud of their own traditions. Which just goes to show that feelings aren’t rational. But maybe this is their heritage — the resilience and ingenuity of the Jewish people. But even now, if I happen to be at my parents’ place at Christmas, I still check those chairs.

 


I hope you enjoyed this blog post! If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup! See you then!


Extra Credit

  • Robert Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).
  • Elizabeth Pleck, Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture and Family Rituals (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  • Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995)
  • Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
  • Steven Penfold, A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

Notes

[1] Dianne Ashton, “Quick to the Party: The Americanization of Hanukkah and Southern Jewry,” Southern Jewish History 12, (January 2009): 1-38

[2] Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 229-243

[3] For example, CJCCCNA ZH Shaar Hashomayim Box 1 Bulletins 1921-1975, File 9, Bulletins January 4– December 27 1963, “Bulletin,” December 19th and 27th 1963, 5. And CJCCCNA ZH Temple Emanu-El Box 1 of 2, “Emanu-el Bulletin,” December 21st, 1962, 2.

[4] All of the names of the interviewees have been changed.

[5] Interview 4, interview by author, October 27, 2008, Montreal, Quebec

[6] Interview 9, interview by author, November 2, 2008, Montreal, Quebec

[7] Interview 5, interview by author, October 28, 2008, Montreal, Quebec.

[8] Interview 13, interview by author, November 5, 2008, Montreal, Quebec.

[9} Interview 22, interview by author, November 14, 2008, Montreal, Quebec.

[10} Though I will note that there is Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Christmas in Canada and one for Chanukah in Canada (though it is super short and doesn’t include half of the information that is in this blog post).

[11}  There is an important caveat here, and that is to do with race. Some Jewish people can, and frequently do, pass for white, and benefit from all of the attendant privileges. Further, some Jews have absolutely been complicit in the marginalization of other racialized groups. I do not want to suggest here that the experiences of Jews who feel othered are at all the same as the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. Rather, my point is that no one should be made to feel as if they are in any way “less Canadian” than anyone else, and that we need to examine the structures that reinforce a particular understanding of Canadian identity.

Liked this post? Please take a second to support Unwritten Histories on Patreon!

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this fascinating article. As an Anglican child growing up in Alberta in the 1960’s, I was totally unaware of how Jewish people might perceive or experience the Christmas holiday. I had no frame of reference. You have certainly opened my eyes to seeing things in a new light.

    • Andrea Eidinger

      December 6, 2017 at 10:24 pm

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And we’re all still learning. My poor husband still has to explain stuff about Christmas traditions to me!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

© 2017 Unwritten Histories

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑