AP feature says Hanukkah is beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It's gone way beyond old-timey "Hanukkah Bushes" decorated like Christmas trees. Now, reports the Associated Press, Hanukkah includes items like Kippah Kantor, Mensch on a Bench, house decorations, even boxes of Hanukkah chocolates.

"Pinterest and Etsy are loaded with blue-and-white Hanukkah crafts like wreaths and stockings," says the deftly written feature for the holiday, which starts this year at sundown Dec. 16. "There are Hanukkah greeting cards, cookie cutters, and even tree ornaments shaped like the three symbols -- Stars of David, menorahs and dreidels -- that scream 'Hanukkah!' amid a sea of holiday merchandise adorned with Christmas trees and Santas."

The story's Star (of David) is the Mensch on a Bench doll, imitating the Yule- themed Elf on the Shelf. As AP relates, creator Neal Hoffman raised $22,000 on Kickstarter last year; now he's producing 50,000 Mensches -- even a few five-foot-tall Mega-Mensches -- for stores like Target and Toys R Us. I recognized a news station in South Florida, home to a major Jewish community, on a collection of TV reports linked from Hoffman's website.

Oy. The traditional eight nights of quiet family gatherings are starting to look like the Ghost of Hanukkah Past. Maybe Steven Spielberg's next movie should be Dreidels of a Lost Art. Or, as tmatt once quipped, "It's beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah." 

But as a rabbi tells AP, it's not the first time Jews have drawn from the surrounding culture. He says latkes, the potato pancakes that are a favorite Hanukkah treat, come from eastern Europe. The dreidel itself comes from Germany, he adds.

But why Hanukkah, a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar? For answers, AP turns to someone who wrote a whole book on the holiday:

Dianne Ashton, a Rowan University professor and author of "Hanukkah in America," says Jews began giving gifts at Hanukkah to show they had joined America's consumer culture: "For immigrants in the early 20th century on the Lower East Side, buying presents for your kids showed you weren't a greenhorn, and it also showed that you had earned enough money and had a few pennies extra."
The custom of "Hanukkah bushes" instead of Christmas trees emerged in the 1950s, Ashton said, along with postwar suburban life.
"You were no longer Jews living in urban ethnic enclaves where everybody was Jewish," Ashton explained. "Here children were much more exposed to what their gentile peers were doing and how their neighbors' houses were decorated."

It's a fun read -- the best kind of fun, imparting info and understanding as well as a few chuckles. But I was surprised that it didn't include things like Hanukkah celebrations by the flamboyant Chabad Lubavitch organization.  Maybe AP was concentrating on commercial items for the holiday.

I was also looking for the article to quote someone who had any misgivings about this kind of blending. Borrowing foods and toys is one thing; emulating holiday themes is another.

An even bigger issue is the commercialization of a reverent observance. Christians have fretted over this for generations, even as they shop for tinsel, turkeys and giftwrap. I'm sure some rabbis, too, have worried that a celebration of a miraculous event -- the liberation of the Jews to worship God -- will likewise be laden with the need to buy a lot of stuff. One of them should have been interviewed for this article.

This can be done without losing the lightness in the Festival of Lights.  Every Jewish family already decides each year what goes into Hanukkah and what doesn't. An open discussion in a newsfeature won't limit that. In fact, it may help.

Photo: Neal Hoffman and his family, with the "Mega" version of his candle-holding Mensch on a Bench doll. Used by permission.

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