It’s that time of year again: the holidays are upon us. You have probably heard this countless times, but what are the “holidays” that we are referring to? Of course, Christmas; but ‘holidays’ implies more than one. In our American culture, the holidays consist of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
Briefly, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus, Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees defeating the Greeks and Kwanzaa celebrates African culture.
But what connects these holidays that turn people to grouping them together? Kwanzaa is not an ancient holiday. It was created in 1965 as an alternative to Christmas for the African Americans to honor their heritage. Over the years, many celebrators of Kwanzaa have taken to celebrating Christmas as well. The fact still remains that the meaning of Kwanzaa has nothing to do with Christmas; in fact, it was originally created to replace Christmas.
Similar to Kwanzaa, Hanukkah has absolutely no link to Christmas besides the time of year in which it is celebrated. The Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar as opposed to the English (solar) calendar, so Hanukkah sometimes overlaps with Christmas but many years it does not. Last year it overlapped during Thanksgiving (you may have seen social media posts that read “Happy Thanksgivukkah”). Furthermore, the time period from which Hanukkah originated, during the time of the Maccabees, occurred long before the birth of Jesus.
There is a misconception that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas. Yes, many children receive presents, but that custom grew from parents not wanting their children to feel left out when all their Christian friends received presents on Christmas. In fact, many Orthodox (traditional) Jews refuse to give children presents on Hanukkah because they see it as an act of assimilation. Many who celebrate Kwanzaa also receive gifts, because when it was created it was competing with Christmas.
Now that we have uncovered the misconceptions, why do people still say happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas? In our overly politically correct world, we are afraid to offend anybody. In many cases the offensive and inaccurate nature of terms should be corrected, such as referring to Native Americans as such instead of “Indians,” or saying mail carrier instead of “mailman,” but in the case of “the holidays,” the term is often used incorrectly.
A few years ago, the name of the large Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was changed to “Holiday Tree.” Neither Hanukkah nor Kwanzaa calls for a tree, so this change to not offend anyone and become politically correct is actually incorrect, and in turn even more offensive. If you are shopping in a store and you see a holiday section filled with gifts explicitly meant for Christmas and nothing for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, how is it a holiday section? We are compromising our accuracy for the fear of hurting anyone, which the inaccuracies end up doing.
During this time of year, the U.S. is overrun with Christmas because a majority of the population is Christian. Any American has accepted that fact, but fear keeps us from calling Christmas what it is, Christmas, not the holidays. If there is something that includes both or all three holidays, than it would be accurate to use the term “holidays,” but another problem arises.
We already established that Christmas and Hanukkah have no significant relationship to each other. Furthermore, Hanukkah is not a major holiday and not nearly as significant in Judaism as Christmas is in Christianity. In fact, the most important Jewish holidays are the High Holy Days at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, which are usually at the beginning of the academic year in terms of the English calendar. Kwanzaa is important in its meaning and is the only one if its kind in the cultural category it is placed, however, many who celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate Christmas. For most Jews in the US, that is not the case with Hanukkah.
It is more offensive to lump Hanukkah together with Christmas than to ignore it because that associates Hanukkah with a far greater level of importance than is actually the case in Jewish tradition. Throughout my life I have been addressed by a countless number of teachers, peers and other non-Jewish individuals who inquire about Hanukkah around Christmas time (often after it has passed). They will wish me “happy holidays,” ask me what I am doing with my family or even offer to let me miss class for Hanukkah. I am rarely wished a happy new year during Rosh Hashanah or offered time off class for holidays most non-Jews have never heard of like Shemini Atzeret, a holiday at the end of Sukkot or The Feast of Tabernacles, even though its significance in Judaism and call for observance that far outweighs that of Hanukkah. In fact, I am often questioned extensively or unable to make up missed work when I have to miss class for an obscure (to them) holiday.
It is easy to blindly follow a movement to be “politically correct,” but it is harder to actually take the time and do the research to find out what might actually be offensive to those we are trying not to offend.