I sat at the lunch table as my friends discussed Christmas movie traditions. When one friend realized I couldn’t relate, she asked me about Chanukah movies. After giving it some thought, I realized that the only movie I could think of was “Rugrats.” I tried explaining to her that Chanukah is not a major holiday like Christmas. Often, society will assume that Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas,” but it is simply not. I want my peers to understand the story behind it rather than its relation to Christmas. I feel that modern Christmas movies that included some kind of Jewish character do not adequately represent Chanukah but instead try to assimilate Jews into Christian culture. I am asking to change this idea that Christmas connects to Chanukah, specifically in movies.
In a recent New York Times article, Nancy Coleman talks about how Chanukah is rarely its own separate religious holiday in Christmas media. In Hallmark Christmas movies which include Jewish characters “[Chanukah] and the characters who celebrate it exist only in relation to Christmas. The Jewish holiday serves as more of a plot point,” Coleman explains. Often, movies try to include the character ‘Nice Jewish Boyfriend’ who comes home with his Christian girlfriend to celebrate Christmas. There is nothing iconically Jewish about him except that he can light a menorah. He doesn’t even wear a kippah. The fact that he doesn’t look Jewish is so significant. The movie tries to assimilate the Jewish character by portraying him as an average American who happens to not celebrate Christmas which is supposed to make him more attractive.
However, Chanukah is about being unassimilated. We celebrate the fact that the people who tried to take us down and did not succeed. The sole purpose of this ‘Nice Jewish Boyfriend’ character is to push the plot forward by using his differences. Some other characters even call this specific character odd, because he does not celebrate Christmas (which is I think is slightly anti-Semitic). Coleman says that this character is seen in movies like “Holiday Date,” “Double Holiday,” and “Mistletoe & Menorahs.” Seriously, Hollywood—put a little more research into your characters instead of trying to use their identity as a means to advance your plot.
However, not all Chanukah representation in Christmas entertainment is tailored in this fashion. Last year, I had to learn to sing Christmas carols for the first time in my life. It felt as if everyone else had read a book I simply hadn’t. I didn’t know the characters or the plot. While I obviously know the basics of Christmas, there is a lot that I don’t know. I don’t know the tunes to the Christmas carols and I don’t watch each Christmas movie obsessively. That year, my choir also sang Jewish songs, Hindu songs and more. When we went caroling around the school, my choir director made it clear that this was “inclusive caroling.”
With rising anti-Semitism, I think it is very important that we educate non-Jews on holidays in general but especially Chanukah. After all, the story of Chanukah is about anti-Semitism, and it is important to know this crucial part of Jewish history. I’ve attempted to teach my friends Chanukah’s story through my school’s Jewish Student Union and also by initiating conversations with them. I think that we all should make it a goal to try to teach more and more people about our culture, because knowledge is power. The more society understands Jews, the more they will tolerate our religion. There are specific halachot which display that we are proud to be Jews. For example, it is a mitzvah to display your menorah in the window to show everyone that you are Jewish.
I hope we see movies in the future where the Jewish characters don’t have to assimilate to be “normal.” This Chanukah, spread light and make sure to teach your friends why exactly we celebrate this holiday. We celebrate to mark that Antiocus didn’t destroy us, we celebrate that the oil lasted eight days, but most importantly, we celebrate our ability to practice Judaism with freedom. Chanukah is a holiday full of light, learning and food. It is most definitely not the “Jewish Christmas.”