Bernard Mendelman: Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas

The following column appeared in The Suburban in December 2010. Chanukah and Christmas celebrations will be curtailed this year because of COVID-19.


The holidays of Chanukah and Christmas do have a number of similarities, but no way is Chanukah a Jewish version of Christmas. Both do fall on the 25th, but Christmas falls on the 25th of December, while Chanukah falls on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (the Hebrew calendar has 13 months), which is why the two holidays rarely coincide, even though they usually fall within the same few week every year.

The eight-day festival commemorates the battle that the Maccabees won over religious persecutions by the Greco-Syrians. Unwilling to give up either their faith or their homes, they banded together in common cause, and were victorious in that battle.

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, who ushered in a new religion and culture; Chanukah is about preserving a religion and culture from those who sought to change it. It is not our most important holiday; it doesn’t even make the top five list of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth.

Both holidays involve gift giving. To commemorates the miracle of the oil that was supposed to kindle the temple light for one day but burned for eight days, on the first night of the holiday we light a candle, adding an extra one on each of the following nights until the Menorah candelabra gets filled. Every evening after the candles have been lit parents give their children a gift or Chanukah gelt. The money (usually a loonie) can then be used to play dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, with a Hebrew letter on each side. You place your bets on which letter the dreidel will land. (I’m surprised none of the casinos have ever added a dreidel table to their vast repertoire).

Prior to Christmas Day, as soon as presents are wrapped, they are placed under the tree. Kids excitedly watch them grow, counting which ones are theirs, building anticipation figuring out what they are. Then Santa Claus leaves his loot, late Christmas Eve or early Christmas Day when the children are sleeping.

Both holidays are centered on home and family and overindulging in food. Latkes are a must for Chanukah. Who can resist these crispy pancakes made with grated potatoes, onions and oil - they taste best hot right out of the frying pan. Every family has recipes passed down from their bubbas that came to Canada from Europe. Half a dozen latkes smothered with sour cream will suffice for lunch, but dinner is where we go whole hog (pardon the non-kosher expression) noshing on latkes topped with applesauce, served with roast brisket or boiled flanken.

When mid-eastern Jews started to immigrate to Montreal, they brought along with them their own favourite Chanukah treat — Sufganiyot (powdered sugar jelly doughnuts) that makes fried latkes look positively healthy.

Essentials of a Quebec Christmas feast are roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, tourtiere pie, and creamy mashed potatoes. Washed down with apple cider and eggnog, followed by desserts of butter tarts, candy canes, granny’s Christmas pudding, mince pie, gingerbread (often in the form of a gingerbread house or gingerbread man), and of course the presence of the traditional fruitcake (not a reference to Uncle Edwin).

When it comes to songs, Christmas has it all over Chanukah. All we can muster up is “I have a little dreidel”. No comparison to “Silent Night. Holy Night” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. We have no song called “Little Dreidel Boy” but it could have been quite different if Irving Berlin, a Jew, had changed the title of his memorable tune to “I’m dreaming of a White Chanukah”.

Surprisingly, isn’t it, that both these holidays, celebrating events that occurred in hot climates, make their greatest impact in the cold of winter? Out walking on snowy December nights, I always glow with warmth from the lit up menorah candles and the brightness of the Christmas symbols. Knowing that behind those windows family and friends are rejoicing in kinship, for a fleeting moment I become Louis Armstrong and find myself humming a non-denominational song, “What a Wonderful World”.

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