It’s Not Jewish Christmas – Jake Henry

Before reading this post, here are a few disclaimers/ caveats that I had in mind while writing.

  1. This post is about my experiences as a Jew in a Christianized/Christian-dominant society. My experiences may or may not align with those of other minoritized religions.
  2. I am not a religious scholar, so please correct me if I mispeak.
  3. Throughout this post I will spell Channukah differently for funsies.

 

I would pay big Shekels to a Jew who has never had to explain Hanuka as Jewish Christmas (to an elementary school classmate, while babysitting a kid, or really anyone). It’s a reflex; it prevents a potentially boring explanation, saving time and keeping the other kids from thinking you’re weird for lighting candles and celebrating an ancient war. I can’t deny the pros of calling Hanuka the Jewish Christmas, but it makes me uncomfortable for several reasons which I’ll outline, the foremost being that it’s inaccurate. They’re very different holidays. Christmas is one of the biggest holidays in Christianity while Hanuka is a minor Jewish holiday. Christmas has historically had gift giving, while Chanaka has only had that tradition since the early 20th century when Jewish immigrants didn’t want their children to feel left out around Christmas (in other countries gifts are given, though not as frequently as in the US; however in the early 19th century there was a more pronounced difference).

 

Hearing Channuka is the “Jewish Christmas” is usually followed by believing that Judaism is Christianity without Jesus (or even worse, Judaism is the unevolved form of Christianity). Some key differences beyond the absence of Jesus include: different approaches to textual interpretation, different stances on proselytization, different fundamental beliefs on the nature of G-d, different calendars, and different belief on the afterlife and sin.

 

Theological and historical inaccuracies aside, Jewish people experience real oppression (micro and macro-aggressions), and the framing of Judaism as Christianiy’s fraternal twin makes that suffering seem less real/frequent. I’m not interested and nor do I have patience for some Christain to enthusiastically say we’re identical—because this hypothetical person didn’t have people throw pennies at them in the locker room, this person didn’t have people do nazi salutes to them daily in school, and I’m willing to bet they don’t have family members buried in unmarked mass graves in concentration camps. Judaism and Christianity do have many textual similarities, but beyond those similarities, we are very different religions, and hearing someone trying to gloss over those foundational differences hurts me and shows an unwillingness to give respect to people’s histories and beliefs.

 

This is different from using past experiences to frame and understand new information (comparing another religion’s holiday to your own), as initially using the lens of your own experience is the only way to comprehend new information. My beef is with people who only look at religions through their own lens, and refuse to appreciate religions for themselves—in essence reducing every belief/practice of another religion to a remix of their own, and refusing to spend the brainpower to comprehend and respect how the religion stands on its own

 

It boils down to the following: I am Jewish, my holidays are Jewish holidays, and I like it when people acknowledge that. It’s true regardless of acknowledgement, but it feels nice.

 

For my Jewish peers, how does this compare with your experience? For other members of minoritized religions, do you have similar experience? For those who were raised Christian, how does this compare to your experience?

9 thoughts on “It’s Not Jewish Christmas – Jake Henry”

  1. Hi Jake, as a Christian who has been raised in majority Christian areas, I will openly admit that my own knowledge about Jewish holidays was so often seen through a lens of my own experience. It was not until college and mainly this fellowship that I have started to recognize that my views were not accurate. I appreciate you sharing your frustration and your perspective on this, and I can personally learn from this. I also agree with you in that while religious traditions can have some broader similarities, our religious experiences are not the same. There is a danger to wanting to see everyone as “the same”. My experience is certainly not the same as others, to say it is fails to acknowledge the real oppression of others, as you point out in your post. And you are right, religious holidays are unique to each tradition and that should not be diminished.

    1. Grace, I fully agree – I had a similar experience growing up and going to a majority Christian public school in the Madison suburbs! We were never really educated on the Jewish holidays besides exactly the stereotypes Jake proposed, and I will admit that I used to do exactly what Jake advised against: attempted to understand Jewish religious holidays through my own Christian lens. As you said, this fellowship is helpful not only in shattering those illusions, but in helping me to understand why it’s harmful to think that way (and this goes for all religions as well). Hopefully, now that I know a little more about Jewish holidays thanks to the neat presentations, I could also correct people when they make these common errors, taking some of the emotional labor away from Jewish folks!

  2. Hi Jake – I’ve been looking forward to reading your thoughts after you alluded to this post in our session last week. Thank you for sharing your experience, and enlightening me, and I’m sure many other folks.

    I grew up with the untrue and harmful notion of Hanukkah being the “Jewish Christmas.” I’m wondering how schooling might perpetuate this ideology. I went to an elementary school that really pushed “Winter Break” and “Winter parties,” and steering away from anything Christmas related. In that absence, we learned about different winter holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Despite “learning” about these holidays, that education led me to think these holidays were just ways various communities celebrated Christmas. Learning was more about eating food and creating crafts, than actual substance and history. I’m curious what experiences our fellows have had with holiday learning in primary schools? What has the media portrayed?

  3. Hi Jake,

    Your post got me thinking about a notorious word, which is the term “Judeo-Christian.” In a sense, it’s a very crude rendition of the phenomenon you describe, just sticking those words together and trusting that little dash to paper over thousands of years of religious differentiation. I think it’s somewhat fallen out of favor, but for a time it was quite popular to stake out a claim of “Judeo-Christian values,” usually in the defense of some culturally conservative ideological project. If there really are “Judeo-Christian values” that can also be differentiated from other religious traditions, I’ve never come across them.

    1. Hi Ben,

      You bring up a really good point. I don’t know too much of the specifics of how Judeo-Christian as a term developed, but I believe it was used kind of as a marketing term in the early 20th century between Jewish and Catholic communities when they were both facing their own respective difficulties from the larger protestant community.

  4. Hello Jake,

    It was so interesting to hear your point of view and read your post. Growing up Muslim in Christian majority countries, I definitely have many people not knowing our holidays, sometimes it has been easier to explain our eid like Muslim Christmas. So it is interesting to hear how to you Hannakuh is not the Jewish Christmas. I appreciate you taking the time to shed light on Judaism, it is so interesting to hear more.

  5. Hey Jake,

    First off, go off! Okay! Yes! I appreciated reading your unapologetic account on how you describe your thoughts about Judaism and Christianity being compared and written off as ‘fraternal twins.’ I’m quite familiar with having to talk about Sikhism with a ‘majority lens,’ using terms like church to describe my place of worship (a Gurdwara) or ‘celebrate Diwali’ when I’m celebrating Bandi Chhor Divas. And that line you write about ‘making the suffering less real,’ I definitely relate. I think about the recent history of Sikhs in Punjab, where the Indian government calls the events of 1984 “anti-Sikh riots,” when in actuality the government carried out strategic plans to target Sikhs to the point of genocide. Thank you for your post. I appreciated being able to see where you come from and how I find myself in a similar place at times.

  6. Hi Jacob!
    I definitely relate to what you are saying in this post. I think for a lot of people it’s hard to wrap their head around the idea that Judaism could be so different from Christianity if we are based on the same holy book as Christianity, the same stories and major characters, and have such a similar concept of G-d. I have definitely gotten very frustrated at various points in time with Christians who, like you said, think they already understand Judaism/see it as a less complete version of their own faith, just because they know the story of Noah’s Ark or whatever. The “Jewish Christmas” thing is for sure a time when this belief gets exposed.
    I think that this is partially because for Christians in the US, religion means what you believe and whether/how often you go to church. For Jews in the US it’s not just that though, and I think that is where the issue comes up, because we define what religion is in such different ways. Like for Jews, our religion is also an ethnicity and it is something we are born into and will always belong to no matter how our beliefs and “religious” practices change. Like you can be a Jew without believing in G-d no problem, but Christians who don’t believe in G-d usually relabel themselves as atheist. Basically you can’t understand our religion just from the Bible, like it is so much more to it than that. It is our language and our food and our customs and our humor and our holidays and so many parts of our life that Christianity may not govern for American Christians whose families have been in the US for lots of generations already.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Jake. I can relate to some of your experiences, although mine differ in some ways as well. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am a Christian, but the large majority of individuals (other Christians included) know very little or have incorrect information about my specific beliefs. Because of this I have many times used more mainstream beliefs or practices to explain my specific beliefs. It was very informative and interesting to see how you process those experiences, thank you for sharing.

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