Hanukkah Kitsch and Christmas Shopping

I spent most of this afternoon Christmas shopping. I can make that align with this article about Hanukkah kitsch.

New York Times, 18 Dec 2022: Potato Latke Cocktail, Anyone?

The point of this article is that the celebration of the variously spelled Jewish holiday Hanukkah has grown in American culture to a degree grossly out of proportion to what was originally a minor, barely noticed event.

To be sure, Christmas has its kitsch side but also its green-fronded gemütlichkeit, its hallowed midnight Mass. Hanukkah, on the other hand — aside from the odd veinless-marble menorah or hand-tooled Israeli spatula — can today feel as if kitsch ate it whole.

I can’t count the amount of Hanukkah gear I’ve seen embroidered with the words “Let’s get lit,” the varieties of gold-sprayed dinosaur menorah, the efflorescence of “Llamakah” merch — which, for reasons known only to the fad gods, twin the Jewish festival of light with a domesticated South American camelid. You can’t get away from the dreidel socks, the Judaic breakfast accessories, the snowmen wearing tallises, the mensches on benches. PetSmart now sells an ugly Hanukkah sweater — for lizards.


But in the case of Hanukkah kitsch specifically, history is significant. Before coming to America, Hanukkah was a minor and oft-overlooked holiday. In the 19th century, European Jews might improvise a menorah on strips of tin or a poked-out potato and call it a night. But in the early 20th century, in part because many Yiddish-speaking Americans were celebrating Christmas as a rite of passage into the New World, there was a push to make Hanukkah a big-time holiday — a domestic festival with songs, foods and rituals, increasingly aimed at children. Hanukkah is, in no small way, a work of American genius. And, of course, American marketing. By the mid-20th century, there was already such novelty: foil-covered chocolate coins, Star of David decorations, singalong records, plastic dreidels, musical candleholders and cookbooks including recipes for menorah salad, a molded concoction that includes nearly a pound of cream cheese.

I admit I’ve wondered why Hanukkah is such a big deal, considering that the event it celebrates — something about candles burning for days beyond what the amount of oil should have provided — seems pretty trivial. Is that the best miracle the Jews can claim, for such a big holiday? I mean, at least the Christian holiday event is about the savior of the world. The answer seems to be, Jews in America needed a holiday of similar importance and grandeur as the one the majority Christians had.

And one can note that Christmas, itself, is vastly over-hyped, even given its supernatural significance, by the spirit of Americana enterprise into an event that drives the marketing sales of so many businesses. It’s all about buying buying buying more stuff. (Just as “holidays” like Labor Day and Memorial Day involve no actual observances, for the vast majority of Americans, just opportunities to do more shopping!)

And how most of the observances of Christmas derive from pagan holidays at the winter solstice. And one can recall that the early Pilgrims actually forbade Christmas celebrations as gaudy and profane. War on Christmas, anyone? The spirit of capitalism has overcome the squeamishness of the early American settlers.


That said, I spent half the day driving around to buy things for people I love and who expect gifts. I can say, and I have, that *I* don’t need more *stuff*. I have enough shirts and pants. Sure, socks and underwear need replacing every couple years, but those are unglamorous gifts. I expect I’ll get more clothes this year anyway.

But most people do expect more stuff. So I at least try to buy new things each year. Not more clothes, or shoes, though not only “experiences” as an admirable trend in gift-giving promotes. That takes planning. I usually do what I’ve done this year: spend a day or half-day, in the week before Christmas, driving around to buy things that I’ve gathered, by paying attention, that my recipients might want and appreciate.

And beyond gifts, my partner and I still observe (I think that’s the best word) Christmas. We put up a tree each year, we hang colored lights from the balconies, we watch Christmas movies, and I make rusks every year. Even though I’m an atheist, though raised luke-warm Presbyterian, and my partner Y grew up non-religiously in China. Ironically, Y, having moved to America when he was 20 or so, is more adamant about observing American holidays of all sorts than I am. Fireworks, Christmas trees. It’s all culture, of course, and he always wants to reinforce his allegiance to the culture he adopted. Jews are famous as being cultural more than religious, and a lot of Americans, nominally Christian, are too, I suspect. The cultural traditions are the good part. The belief in ancient supernatural fantasies is not.

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