Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, marks the victory of the outnumbered Maccabees over the Syrian army and the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in 164-165 B.C. Early Jewish-Americans, like other Jewish communities in the world, celebrated the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but didn’t spend much time celebrating the minor festival of Hanukkah until the 19th century. During its rise in popularity during the late 1800s, Hanukkah represented a dedication to Judaism for many American Jews, a minority in their communities. As Christmas grew in popularity during this time, so too did Hanukkah. In the 1860s, Cincinnati Rabbi Max Lilienthal provided children’s Hanukkah activities as a Jewish alternative to the surrounding Christmas events. Soon, Hanukkah events became standard at American synagogues. As more Jews arrived in America during the 20th century, companies began to recognize the holiday, marketing their products as ideal Hanukkah gifts and producing gelt candy. Outside of its religious significance, Hanukkah helped link American Jews to their Christian neighbors while still allowing them to retain their religious values: citizens, regardless of religion, partook in common activities during the holiday season, such as gift-giving and family gatherings. Although a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah has become the best-known Jewish holiday in the United States.
For Christians, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ. Although the holiday is believed to date back to 336 A.D., Christmas did not catch on across the United States until the latter half of the 1700s. During colonial times, celebrations (or lack thereof) greatly depended on the predominant sect of each region. In Puritan New England, Christmas celebrations were often banned as non-Biblical and sacrilegious. Farther south however, where Anglicanism was more common, Christmas was celebrated with wassailing, yule logs, pranks, singing, and feasting. At least some of our founding fathers held Christmas feasts – John and Abigail Adams hosted the first White House Christmas party for their granddaughter and other children in 1800. That said, the founders were willing to work on the day – the first session of Congress after the Revolution was held on Christmas Day, 1789. As Christmas gatherings became more and more popular throughout the 1800s, Americans borrowed traditions such as the German Christmas tree and Dutch Sinter Klaas (popularized by Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore). Alabama was the first of the states to make Christmas a legal holiday in 1836, but it wasn’t recognized nationally until 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress declared it a federal holiday along with New Year’s Day and Independence Day. Nowadays, Christmas, in addition to being a religious occasion, is an American cultural observance as well. Christians and non-religious folks alike gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, and enjoy holiday festivities.
In recognition of the holiday season, JMC has gathered together some historical resources and fellows’ articles that examine the influence of Hanukkah and Christmas in America. Additionally, there has been tension over religious and civil liberties during the holiday season as nativity scenes, menorahs, and other religious decorations are displayed publicly. Our fellows’ have contributed pieces on this aspect of the holiday season as well.
Below is a collection of resources examining the influence of Hanukkah and Christmas in America. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
Selected online resources on Hanukkah
The First Public Menorah
Although Jews have been in America for hundreds of years, the first public display of the menorah didn’t occur until 1974. On a cold evening in Philadelphia, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, with the help of yeshivah students, lit a simple menorah in front of Independence Hall. Since that night, menorahs have become a common sight on town greens and in public squares across the country and around the world. Read Rabbi Menachem Posner’s article on this tradition and its American origins at Chabad.org.
Jewish Holidays in Colonial America
Last December, JMC fellow Andrew Porwancher appeared on the children’s podcast, Growing Patriots, to speak on the place of Jewish holidays in the life of colonial Jewish-Americans. Although aimed at children, the podcast is an excellent resource for general audiences who wish to learn more about the Jewish-American heritage this Hanukkah. The Colonial Williamsburg website also features an informative article by museum educator Robert Doares on the celebration of Jewish holidays in early America.
A Product of the Melting Pot: Jewish-Americans and Beloved Christmas Music
Representative of the American melting pot, several of the most popular American Christmas songs were written by Jewish-Americans. Jewish songwriters and composers such as Johnny Marks, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, and Jule Styn were responsible for hits such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “White Christmas.” The secular tone of these songs reflects the ways in which the holiday season has become not only a religious occasion, but a facet of American culture as well.
Selected online resources on Christmas:
What So Proudly We Hail
The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Christmas Day,” that considers the meaning of Christmas in the United States, with selections by American authors such as Washington Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and Sandra Cisneros, to name just a few.
Beginning in 2005, Amy A. Kass (1940–2015), coeditor of What So Proudly We Hail and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, led an annual Christmas seminar on a work of literature with themes appropriate to the holiday. With this ebook in her honor, we examine the meaning of Christmas Day, with selections by American authors such as Washington Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and Sandra Cisneros, to name just a few. The ebook begins by exploring the American tradition of Christmas, and then considers the practice of giving and receiving, charity and good works, and finally, the religious significance of the holiday.
Christmas at the White House
Historically, Christmas has been a memorable affair at the White House. The White House Historical Association’s “Christmas Traditions in the White House Fact Sheet” includes several interesting holiday observances by First Families over the years, including Andrew Jackson’s indoor “snowball” fight. Megan Harney and Ellen Cranley at Business Insider have gathered an impressive collection of White House Christmas photos from the 1880s through today.
Christmas Day, 1776: Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware River
Christmas, 1776 has a special place in our nation’s history: the day proved to be a turning point in the fight for independence. On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington and his troops crossed the icy Delaware River, made an arduous journey to Trenton, NJ, and surprised the Hessian soldiers camped there the next morning. The American soldiers’ difficulties paid off, as they secured the first major military victory of the war and proved to potential allies that the Continental Army was a force to be reckoned with.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Hanukkah, Christmas, religious liberty, or their histories and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.