Skip to content

‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah

December 5, 2012

xmas-lgThe story of how Christmas was elevated from a minor holiday into the major celebration of the calendar year – and the role that Dickens’s masterful ghost story A Christmas Carol played in that transformation has been often told (for example here or here).  But how did Hanukkah ever become corrupted?

Hanukkah was always a minor post-biblical holiday.  Yet it is far more prominent in the public imagination even than many of the major five festivals of the Jewish calendar (e.g., Shavuos, Sukkos).  Hanukkah is universally recognized, despite the fact that the ancient writings that describe the Maccabean war and rededication of the Temple were not accepted into the Hebrew Bible canon (although they survive in the Christian Deuterocanons).  Hanukkah boosters prominently exclaim that Hanukkah has eight days of gift-giving (still a poor runner-up to Christmas’s twelve days) despite there being no Talmudic requirement for gift giving (Christianity might claim a tradition for Christmas gift-giving based on the gifts of the magi).  Meanwhile the Jewish holiday of Purim does require gift giving (both to the poor and to non-poor) is largely neglected – at least by main-stream society.

Hanukkah is by far the best known Jewish holiday – so much so that the second most common “symbol” of Judaism is perhaps  a Hanukkah menorah (only after a star of David), rather than, say, a shofar rams horn or tefillin phylacteries or shabbos candles or challah bread or a havdalah candle.  So how did this “runner-up” to Christmas become so prominent?

That’s the task that a new CD set from the always fascinating Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation takes on.  The extensive (and wonderfully illustrated) liner notes explain a bit of the history:

As soon as Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, the competitive campaign to beef up Hanukkah – a relatively minor, unheralded Jewish holiday – went into high gear:  not only will we celebrate Christmas, we will create a rival holiday of our own to celebrate as well!  You have only one day of presents, we will have eight nights!

The roots of the reclamation lay in the creative minds of a small band of New York City-based youths who called themselves “The American Hebrew.”  In the wake of the Civil War when American popular imagination had been captivated by the twin obsessions of militarism and masculinity, the Hebrews believed that the Maccabean themes of Hanukkah offered the opportunity to prove they hailed from warrior-stock as much as the next American.  They created an ambitious campaign for the “Grand Revival of the Jewish National Holiday of Chanucka in a manner and style never before equaled.”  Their explicit goal was to rescue this “national festival from the oblivion into which it seemed rapidly failing.”  After persuading the Young Men’s Hebrew Association to sponsor a Hanukkah military program, the race to build a bigger, better, stronger holiday was on.  The festival was soon replete with its own Hanukkah songbook.  Rabbi Gustav Gottheil kicked it off before the turn of the 20th century by giving an Americanized makeover to an older Hanukkah song, “Ma’oz Tzur,” and turning it into “Rock of Ages.”  Songs about dreidels, gelt, and candles soon followed.[…]

In late 19th century New York, large scale holiday spectacles were all the rage.  At New York’s Academy of Music in 1879m 100 cymbal-bearing maidens, along with “Jewish soldiers, trumpeters, banner bearers, Syrian captives and young women with harps,” took to the stage in what Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, called a “grand work of realistic art.”  Filling the eye as well as the ear, the American Hanukkah was initially an exercise in pageantry. 

A generation or so later, Hanukkah developed into an opportunity to “shower Jewish children with gifts” or so exhorted What Every Jewish Woman Should Know, a popular guidebook to Jewish ritual celebration.  “If ever lavishness in gifts is appropriate, it is on Hanukkah,” the text told its readers, hastening the holiday’s transformation form a grand public event into an intimate, domestic phenomenon centered on exchange.  Meanwhile, the commercialization of Hanukkah and its pleasing association with material things accelerated further when advertisements in the early 1900s harnessed the holiday to the consumption of newfangled food products.  Blending “Chanukah Latkes with Modern Science,” the manufacturers of Crisco, among others, made a point of touting the virtues of both tradition and modernity.  Little wonder, then, that Hanukkah became more and more attractive to contemporary American audiences.  The holiday was increasingly hard to resist.

Still, it was not until the postwar era that Hanukkah really took off.  A number of factors, both domestic and global, came together at the time to propel the millennial movement into the elevated ranks of popular American Jewish holidays.  For one thing, affluence combined with the baby boom of the 1950s to generate lots of interest in childhood and in appurtenances.  Against that background, Hanukkah seemed tailor-made to appeal to kids and their increasingly attentive parents.  For another thing, postwar America was awash in sentiments of “cultural one-ness,” which granted Jewish forms of religious expression a kind of parity with Christian ones.  The winter holiday of Hanukkah benefited mightily from that ecumenical spirit even if, at times, it resembled too closely what one disgruntled American Jewish parent disparaged as a “competitive winter sport.”  More pointedly still, the rise of the State of Israel, whose embattled latter-day Maccabees saved the day, offered yet another incentive – and a highly relevant one, at that – for embracing Hanukkah.  Once consigned to the history books, these brave warriors of yesteryear re-emerged as modern-day heroes.

The musical expression of Hanukkah was particularly fascinating, and this collection documents it, with songs form Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” to “Sevivon, Sov, Sov, Sov.”  But mixed in these songs are painful reminders of the way that Hanukkah became “important” – with songs like the Klezmatics “Hanukah Tree” or Stanley Adams and Sid Wayne’s “’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah.”  A New York Times review of the set says:

[T]he track that perhaps best captures the paradox the album explores is “The Problem,” a 1967 song from the comedy album “Have a Jewish Christmas … ?” by Ray Brenner and Barry E. Blitzer. Set to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” the song finds humor in the mixed feelings a religious Jew feels at Christmastime: “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, if Santa Claus is true/His joy is fun for everyone, but what’s a Jew to do?”

You can hear “The Problem” (which is on the “Christmas disk” of the set) here.

The second disk of the set features Christmas songs sung by Jewish singers:  Lou Reed, the Ramones, Mel Torme (who sings his famous “The Christmas Song”), Bob Dylan, Theo Bikel (who mixes some Hebrew into his rendition), Richard Tucker, Dinah Shore, Benny Goodman, Larry Harlow, Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor, Sammy Davis Jr., the Ames Brothers, Eddie Fischer, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and Mitch Miller.  Sadly, no tracks from Elvis (who some claim was Jewish, and who reportedly wore a Star of David along with a Cross, to cover all possible bases) or Barbara Streisand’s two Christmas albums or Phil Spector, the producer of the most famous Christmas album of all time.

Today, the Jewish influence on Christmas has turned into some bitterness – for example in Garrison Keillor’s infamous anti-Semitic diatribe:

This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t. Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.

It turns out that Keillor was more of a originalist-Lutheran than we realized.

But the secularization of Christmas has long provided an OK for at least some Jews outside the entertainment business to give a nod to the holiday – thus Theodore Herzl had a Christmas tree as did the young Gershom Scholem.  (That last link points to an article which has since been expanded to full book from Rutger’s University Press.) 

In any case, fans of American pop music or students of Jewish assimilation are likely to enjoy this fascinating CD set.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2012 10:58 pm and both tempt us with snippets of the songs. But are the essays by Greil Marcus and Jenna Weissman Joselit published anywhere else we can read them other than via the CD liner? Well, maybe I’ll just have to buy this set for all of it.

  2. December 9, 2012 1:08 pm

    Kurk, as far as I know, those essays are only available on the CD booklet, which is quite excellent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: