American Hanukkah: How Pop Culture Created “Jewish Christmas”

Lighting the menorah of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. (

Lighting the menorah in the nation’s oldest standing synagogue, historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. (

This Holiday Season, many who celebrates Christmas might sense something is sorely missing.  Hanukkah.

Hanukkah paper goods.

Hanukkah paper goods.

In the store aisles, alongside the rock-and-roll animatronic Santa Claus shaking his belly and fake green wreathes with red glass ornaments, there are none of the menorahs, candles, draedles, greeting cards, gift wrappings and banners in white and the color which comedienne Joan Rivers calls “Jewish bluish.”

This year the eight-day Jewish “festival of lights” began on Wednesday, November 27 2013 and ended on Thursday, December 5, 2013, a rare occurrence said not to be repeated for another 70,000 years. While it coincided with Thanksgiving which fell late on this year’s calendar as the traditional “fourth Thursday in November,” it only overlapped what is generally considered the Christmas season (as marked by Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving) by six days.

A Touro Synagogue Menorah. (flickr, laurence's pictures)

A Touro Synagogue Menorah. (flickr, laurence’s pictures)

Marked by customs followed since ancient times in commemorating an important event in Judaic history, Hanukkah isn’t a Biblical-ordained religious holiday necessitating formal dietary and habitual restrictions.

Once American Jewish leaders of the Victorian era prompted more colorful, public celebrations to mark the holiday, however, Hanukkah blended into the larger American Popular Culture to gain currency – specifically as a symbol of identity for those who are Jewish, and generally as a familiar tradition for those who are not.

Torah ornamental cover used at Touro Synagogue, made in Germany in 1810. (LIbrary of Congress)

Torah ornamental cover used at Touro Synagogue, made in Germany in 1810. (LIbrary of Congress)

Christmas evolved into the holiday we know from once being deemed unimportant by colonial American Christian leaders. Hanukkah was once similarly viewed by colonial American Jewish leaders.

For English Puritans who settled Massachusetts, Swedish Lutherans who settled Delaware, German Mennonites who joined Quakers to settle Pennsylvania, and many other Europeans, religious faith was their binding identity rather than what would be seen today as their ethnic nationality.

New Amsterdam, 1685.

New Amsterdam, 1685.

The exact same promise of being able to openly worship as they chose led four married couples, two widows and thirteen children who were Jewish Spaniards and Portuguese to settle in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later New York) just 34 years after the Pilgrims first established what became Plymouth Plantation in 1620.

Just as the Protestant colonist Roger Williams encountered intolerance for his form of worship among the Puritan sect’s political leadership in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Spanish and Portuguese colonists encountered it among the Dutch Reformed sect’s political leadership in New Amsterdam.

A depiction of Roger Williams.

A depiction of Roger Williams.

Such conditions led Williams to establish the Rhode Island colony on the principals of religious freedom and separation of church and state, inviting people of all faiths to settle there.

In 1658, some of the Spanish and Portuguese colonists migrated there from New York, soon joined by Germans and English who were also Jewish. By 1677,  two men from the original congregation of fifteen families purchased land there for a burial ground.

Christian and Jewish colonists of 18th century Newport were close. Anglican Peter Harrison volunteered to design the first synagogue for the Jewish community.

Touro Synagogue. (National park Service)

Touro Synagogue. (National park Service)

Now the oldest standing such building in the United States, when the Touro Synagogue was dedicated on December 2, 1763,  Newport’s Congregationalist pastor Ezra Stiles was in attendance.

Stiles left a highly detailed description of the new synagogue and the ceremony that day. Learning Hebrew, studying the Old Testament, his letters and diaries of Newport’s Jewish community over the years are assiduous.

Ezra Stiles.

Ezra Stiles.

He went regularly to the synagogue on Jewish holidays and a decade later formed an extremely close friendship with Haim Isaac Carigal, a rabbi from Palestine visiting Newport for six months.

Rabbi Raphael Hayyim Isaac Carregal.

Rabbi Raphael Hayyim Isaac Carregal.

Often dining with Carigal at his home, Stiles improved his skill with Hebrew, studied Kabbalah, interpreted Biblical texts and learned Jewish history.

He  commissioned a portrait of Rabbi Carigal and left even more detailed descriptions of religious services he attended at the Touro Synagogue for the important holidays of Purim, Shavuot and Passover.

What is undocumented, however, is whether the synagogue’s dedication date was chosen because it also happened to be the first day of Hanukkah in 1763. In none of his writings over the years did Stiles reference Hanukkah as being celebrated the Touro Synagogue or even learning about it from Carigal.

Touro Synagogue (

Touro Synagogue (

Considering that he was careful to record every nuance and fact about Jewish life in Newport, it suggests that Hanukkah, being more of an historical celebration rather than a holy day ordained by the Bible, then played little to no importance in the calendar of the American colonists.

The first tangible evidence of Hanukkah being celebrated as an important holiday in the United States is credited to none other than a belle of the Old South, a woman born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1797 by the name of Penina Moise.

Not only South Carolina but most of the South has an old and rich Jewish history; the Palmetto State had a population of 2,000 Jews by 1800, more than in any other place in North America at the time.

Penina Moise. (

Penina Moise. (

Intellectual, compassionate, politically astute and socially-connected, Miss Moise was a prolific writer, poet and lyricist. Her first poem was published in a Charleston newspaper in 1819, and her articles were read throughout the nation.

Penina Moise's book is the first published in the US by a Jewish woman. (Library of Congress)

Penina Moise’s book is the first published in the US by a Jewish woman. (Library of Congress)

She was a regular columnist for the early women’s Home Journal, and her 1833 Fancy’s Sketch Book, a collection of her poems, was the first such publication authored by a Jewish woman in the United States.

Along with addressing the fullest range of political issues and current events of both regional and national concern, she also wrote about Jewish life in the United States.

The Carolina belle advocated adaptation of traditional rituals to the emerging American popular culture as a way to maintain customs which managed to preserve the core values of Judaism which they symbolized.

Beth Elohim Synagogue, Charleston, South Carolina. (Library of Congress)

Beth Elohim Synagogue, Charleston, South Carolina. (Library of Congress)

Vitally engaged in Charleston’s Beth Elohim congregation, she worked to ensure it flourished with a membership that was also integrated into and highly visible among the city’s civic life.

She did this not only in her role as the congregation’s second Sunday School superintendent in 1845, but by becoming, in many respects, the American “Mother of Hanukkah.”

Sometime in the 1820s, she composed her hymn “Feast of Lights” about the meaning of Hanukkah, using the story of how Jews bravely fought to recover their temple, confiscated by Greeks, and how God fortified them with a miracle permitting a one-day supply of purified olive oil to last for eight days.

The historic Hanukkah Hymn by Peninia Moise. (

The historic Hanukkah Hymn by Peninia Moise. (

She wrote it, however, not in archaic language but in a modern manner to inspire pride of identity among the congregants.

Penina Moise authored nearly two hundreds works in the first American Jewish hymnal, Hymns Written for the Use of Hebrew Congregations, published by her congregation in 1842, reprinted five times. A dozen of them were then incorporated into the Jewish Reform Movement’s 1897 Union Hymnal, many being sung well into the twentieth century. A sign of the religion’s first reforms enacted in the U.S., the words of the new hymns being heard at the Charleston synagogue related specifically to the personal identity of those who were Jewish but were English lyrics set to the same sort of music sung in Protestant churches.

Steeped in Charleston’s courtly customs, it may well have been Miss Moise who prompted the literally brilliant idea of bringing Old South ceremoniousness into the synagogue, making the first day of Hanukkah a more formalized and fancier ceremony by having a choir sing the new hymns. The elemental illumination of the menorah naturally complemented the elegance of candlelight familiar to the wealthy class of all faiths. Thus, the official event signaling the start of the annual festival of lights at the synagogue blended seamlessly into the busy calendar of convivial Charleston’s busy social season.

Hanukkah in Marion Square. (Charleston City Paper)

Hanukkah in Marion Square. (Charleston City Paper)

Penina Moise was able to sustain the traditional importance of Hanukkah yet foster a popularized version by adapting it into one, as the Jewish Women’s Archives puts it, “transformed by Protestant aesthetics and American political thought.”

Today, Charleston hosts a large community Hanukkah celebration in Marion Square. A primary sponsor has been the famous Southern grocery store chain rather ironically known as Piggly Wiggly.

Max Lilienthal with his family. (Magnes Collection of Jewish Art)

Max Lilienthal with his family. (Magnes Collection of Jewish Art)

The nationality of immigrants to the U.S. who identified as Jewish shifted by the mid-19th century from Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch to a larger population of Germans. New scholarship pioneered by Dianne Ashton in her book Hanukkah in America identified Rabbi Max Lilienthal an important Reform Judaism leader from Cincinnati as perhaps the American “Father of Hanukkah.”

Noticing that many of his immigrant family congregants observed some secular Christmas customs they’d learned in Germany but none recalling Hanukkah, he grew concerned that their future generations of children would know or care nothing of their heritage. Not having many old customs, apart from lighting the menorah on the eight successive nights of the festival, did not prevent Lilienthal from forging new ones.



In 1874, at the Reform synagogue in Cincinnati over which he presided, Max Lilienthal hosted the first known Hanukkah party for children in the U.S. Some two hundred children attended. In a 2007 speech, Dianne Ashton described it:

Lilienthal read a prayer and lighted the holiday candles. Members of the school committee delivered speeches. The choir sang musical selections. Gifts were given to the teachers from the children. The children were treated to a snack, and were sent home before a social dance planned by the women of the congregation lasted into the night. Lilienthal’s national magazine, The Hebrew Sabbath School Visitor, urged readers to organize similar Hanukkah festivities in their own communities….it drew upon Jewish rites, customs remembered from Europe, and practices learned from Christians in America.

Rabbi Wise.

Rabbi Wise. (American Jewish Archives)

Lilienthal was not acting alone. His friend and colleague was the father of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

Wise with students and faculty of Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College. (American Jewish Archives)

Wise with students and faculty of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College. (American Jewish Archives)

A year before Liliental’s Hanukkah party, Wise unified reform congregations into the cohesive organization now known as the Union for Reform Judaism. A year after the party, Wise created the Hebrew Union College, a rabbinical seminary for reformists.

A full two years before Lilienthal’s party, however, Rabbi Wise had included what appeared to be his own American adaption of an official Hanukkah prayer in his 1872 book, Minhag Amerika, The Daily Prayers for American Israelites, intended for use during the annual holiday by reform adherents in the privacy of their home or the public communal space of the synagogue.

The prayer written by Rabbi Wise for Hanukkah.

The prayer written by Rabbi Wise for Hanukkah.

The idea was fanned by a national network of newspapers and magazines and the creation of Hanukkah parties for children was taken up by even congregations opposing reform. “The children shall have it as a day of rejoicing our religion. Hanukkah can be celebrated to delight young and old,” Lilienthal had further declared, thus also serving as an impetus for involving Jewish women into organizing the events, and increasing their visibility within congregation activities.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. (

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. (

Within a decade of these shifts, two other societal factors further solidified the emergence of Hanukkah. In the Victorian Age, Americans amped up the British customs of Christmas, introduced by the Queen’s husband from his native Germany, and made it the national obsession it has become, turning what was once a religious holiday into a season of shopping, Santa Claus, family gatherings, big parties, wreaths, Christmas trees and more.

The impact of this was felt all the more dramatically by the waves of millions of Jewish immigrants now coming to America from eastern Europe and Russia.

Adopting the secular Christmas habits of their new homeland was one immediate way of acculturating as Americans, but Jewish women’s organizations helped ensure that while the messenger might resemble Christmas the message had to be Hanukkah.

A vintage Jewish holiday card. (

A vintage Jewish holiday card. (

Through a network of their membership, they began to sell specially-printed Hanukkah greeting cards, just like Christmas cards, except they carried sentiments of the day, some printing several poems about the holiday written by Emma Lazarus, the most famous being “The Feast of Lights.”

Decorating a Jewish home with wreaths and garlands and exchanging gifts as if it was Christmas, suggested a 1904 Jewish Daily Forward editorial, had become popular with recent Jewish immigrants as a means of public proof that “one is no longer a greenhorn.”

A Morgen Journal editorial instructed Jewish mothers that the win and keep the devotion of their children in December, they must devise ways to fill the eight days of Hanukkah with games, gifts, parties and all-around fun.

Kaufmann Kohler

Kaufmann Kohler.

“Kindle the Chanukah lights anew, modern Israelite! Make the festival more than ever before radiant with the brightness and beauty of love and charity,” urged Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler.

In Ladies Home Journal, Rabbi Emil Hirsch seconded this, saying Hanukkah provided “a vigorous story, dramatic incidents, strong personalities, fine home-scenes, abundance of imagery, plenty of traditional customs, and home cheer.”

It was, however, that old American standby of consumerism which truly drove it into the popular culture. The ability to buy gifts was a symbol of prosperity previously unknown to many of the new Jewish Americans but it was also a way of simultaneously retaining identity while also sharing in the larger American community as it went out shopping in the days following Thanksgiving.

At least one New York bank established Hanukkah Savings Clubs, exactly like its Christmas Clubs, which had customers putting away a bit each week so they could spend it all on gifts when December came around.

Manufacturers suggested both small gifts, like decorative tins of candy, coffee and tea and larger, expensive ones like a a piano, record-player or waffle-iron.

Hanukkah celebration by the Young Men's Hebrew Association, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 16t 1880 in Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper.

Hanukkah celebration by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 16t 1880 in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper.

What seemed to unconsciously differentiate many of the advertised gifts of Hanukkah versus those of Christmas was that it could be shared and enjoyed by more than one person.

Jewish newspaper Der Tog ran an ad in 1925 declaring that a new Hudson automobile was, “A Chanukah present for the entire family—The Greatest Metsiah (or bargain) in the World.”

In the newsletter of the national Jewish women’s clubs, Hadassah, members were urged to buy someone in their social group a new mah-jong set.

What Every Jewish Woman Should Know urged mothers to especially buy gifts for their children as a way to keep them from feeling neglected when friends bragged of their Christmas presents.

Latkes, potato pancakes fried in olive oil. (

Latkes, potato pancakes fried in olive oil. (

Food manufacturers got into the act as well. In adapting the potato “latke” pancake traditionally eaten on Hanukkah, fried in oil to commemorate the holiday’s celebration of a small amount of oil miraculously burning for eight days, the Mazola Oil Company promised Jewish housewives they no longer need cook a chicken just to get its fat drippings for frying:, “End Your Slavery to a Cup of Schmaltz.” The Aunt Jemima company hawked its boxed wheat floor mix as ideal for making latke mix with no fuss.

Barton's Hanukkah Candy tin. (etsy)

Vintage Barton’s Hanukkah Candy tin. (etsy)

Candy companies saw potential too. Barton’s seemed to strike out with their odd idea of making chocolate versions of the familiar potato latkes fried in oil. They fared better by selling hard candy in tins decorated with symbols of the holiday.

Another company turned Maccabee soldiers into a Hanukkah version of Christmas tin soldiers, appealing in the form of translucent and shiny made barley sugar lollipops in a rainbow of bright colors

Chocolate gelt.

Chocolate gelt.

It was Loft’s that first offered milk chocolate disks wrapped in gold-colored foil, as the familiar gold “gelt” coins which had often been given by family members to children on Hanukkah, stemming from an earlier custom when congregants gave gold coins as a token of appreciation to religious leaders.

There is some uncertainty about this, however, another source suggesting it was a tradition that Dutch Jews had picked up from their Christian counterparts in Holland when candy coins were among the treats Dutch children found stuffed in their wooden shoes each December 8, St. Nicholas Day.

A stuffed toy Maccabee soldier illustrated in the 1920s book What the Moon Brought by Sadie Rose Weilstein. (

A stuffed toy Maccabee soldier illustrated in the 1920s book What the Moon Brought by Sadie Rose Weilstein. (

Hanukkah took on the more compelling significance of a people’s survival in the wake of the Holocaust and a political symbolism, following the 1948 creation of Israel as a nation and the defense to ensure its existence. Not merely for those militaristic Zionists who found currency in the story of the Maccabeans fighting back to regain their identity but also for Jewish Americans, lighting the menorah candles carried a stronger emotional impact, an affirmation of identity found in repeating the annual multi-generational family ritual.

David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister, and Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, presented Harry S. Truman with a menorah in the White House on May 8th, 1951.

David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister, and Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, presented Harry S. Truman with a menorah in the White House on May 8th, 1951. (National Archives)

It moved the Baptist President of the United States as well.

In 1946, when the Touro Synagogue was given the designation of a “National Historic Site,” Harry S Truman declared that, “The setting apart of this historic shrine as a national monument is symbolic of our national tradition of freedom, which has inspired men and women of every creed, race, and ancestry to contribute their highest gifts to the development of our national culture.”

Three years after his support for the state of Israel helped to establish it, President Truman welcomed Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion into the Oval Office, where he was presented with a rare menorah. Both of their grandsons returned to the White House and together lit that very same menorah in 2008, invited by President George W. Bush, who also established the tradition of an official White House Hanukkah reception.

A mother and her daughter light a menorah in the 1950s. (

A mother and her daughters light a menorah in the 1950s. (

The commercial pitch for “Hanukkah colors” first appeared the same year Truman was given a menorah, one California housewife suggesting the use of “a color scheme of blue and silver and yellow and gold…”

Crepe-paper streamers in Hanukkah colors.

Crepe-paper streamers in Hanukkah colors.

What emerged more definitively were blue and white. The colors have significance, the earliest known cultural references to them being from the 1864 poem Judah’s Colors by Ludwig August Frankl, a line of which reads: “Blue and white are the colors of Judah; white is the radiance of the priesthood, and blue, the splendors of the firmament.”

The color combination is also referenced in prayer shawls worn for religious ceremonies, stemming from a Biblical instruction to color one of the threads of it with the natural blue dye “tekhelet” derived from sea snails to serve as a reminder of the commandments. In 1891, anticipating a homeland, blue and white were adopted as the colors of the flag of a future homeland.

Making Hanukkah decorations at Temple of Aaron, St. Paul. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Making Hanukkah decorations at Temple of Aaron, St. Paul. (Minnesota Historical Society)

As historian Jenna Weissman Joselit chronicled in her book, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, the kosher candy makers saw a chance to market games which referenced the new nation of Israel.

Loft’s sold one which featured player pieces representing heroic figures like General Moshe Dayan for a game called “Valor against Oppression,” while the competition Barton’s sold a “Race Dredel,” game of chance which used the map of Israel as the board.

Even that dubious Mid-Century Modern fixture of the gelatin salad was done up for Hanukkah, recipe books in menorah-shaped moulds offering steps to create a perfect cream cheese and jello fruit salad.

An album of children's song for Hanukkah. (Atlantic Florida University)

A Fifties album of children’s song for Hanukkah. (Atlantic Florida University)

In the Fifties, children’s records now featured some of the first Hanukkah songs that would become familiar tunes to Baby Boomers, Generation Jonesers and Generation Xers. Some were rather lame, like “I’m a Little Latke,” to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot,” and one about the eight candles to the tune of “Ten Little Indians.” The runaway hit of the kiddie genre is the still-ubiquitous “Dradel, Dradel, Dradel.”

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, public schools across the country were increasingly including at least one Hanukkah song among Christmas melodies, and some about Thanksgiving and New Year’s at “Holiday Assembly Parties.”

A so-called Hanukkah Bush. (flickr wikipedia)

A so-called Hanukkah Bush. (flickr wikipedia)

Hallmark joined the bandwagon too, with blue-white crepe paper streamers, wrapping-paper, ribbons, paper plates and napkins. Another manufacturer even briefly sold artificial “Hannukah bushes,” a tongue-in-cheek term for those who were Jewish but put up Christmas trees in their home.

The plastic, electric menorah.

The plastic, electric menorah.

Even the menorah went modern, fashioned not only from a variety of synthetic and unbreakable materials available at reasonable prices for those who couldn’t afford more luxurious ones in precious metals.

Some even played Jewish songs, like music boxes. Soon enough, Woolworth was hawking electric menorah with white plastic candles and orange-colored Christmas bulbs that represented candle flames that could be turned on individually through the eight days.

Martha Stewart's homemade Hanukkah crafts.

Martha Stewart’s homemade Hanukkah crafts.

In the Sixties, these fake menorahs became a ubiquitous site especially in the multiple windows of apartment dwellings where leaving candles burning at night were forbidden as a fire hazard.

Jon Lovitz in his original creation of Hanukkah Harry.  (

Jon Lovitz in his original creation of Hanukkah Harry. (

And as the national Pop Culture took a snarkier direction, neither Christmas nor Hanukkah was cut any slack.

On  the December 16, 1989 episode of Saturday Night Live, comedian Jon Lovitz introduced his character of “Harry Hanukkah,” a bearded Jewish figure in blue and white who helps save Christmas by filling in for his friend Santa Claus.

Six years after that, comedian Adam Sandler premiered his novelty, “Hanukkah Song,” naming various celebrities who were Jewish as a way of assuaging Jewish kids who felt neglected during all the Christmas hoopla.

A satirical 2010 Hanukkah book.

A satirical 2010 Hanukkah book.

In the recent Uh-Ohs decade, not only was a Hanukkah song written by folk singer Woody Guthrie discovered and then released but Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, also composed one. It was even the subject of one episode on that hot T.V. series The O.C. and a recent PBS special, Lights! Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert. 

Hanukkah postage stamp.In 2005, a pop punk band calling themselves the LeeVees, formed with the mission to spread “Hanukkah cheer,” and released a CD called Hanukkah Rocks!

Perhaps the strongest indication that Hanukkah had joined the galaxy of American Holidays was the issuance in 1995 by the U.S. Post Office of a stamp honoring the holiday.

In quintessential American style, however,  the serious will always be offset by the silly. For several decades now, all sorts of choirs and individuals, in and out of synagogues have sung a novelty song by social satirist Tom Lehrer called Hanukkah in Santa Monica. Here’s Lehrer doing the original:

The Santa Dreidel. (

The Santa Dreidel. (

This year, one of the more unusual Hanukkah items to appear on the market was a The Santa Claus Dreidel.

Just below the surface of the seeming ridiculousness of the toy, however, is the fact that rather than being a Hanukkah icon adapted for Christmas, it is a Christmas icon adapted for Hanukkah.

Progress sometimes appears in small ways.

A California family celebrates Hanukkah in 1962. (

A California family celebrates Hanukkah in 1962. (

Hanukkah has clearly became far more than the retelling of an ancient story.

It is now a time for family gatherings, lavish dinner parties with friends featuring traditional menus, buying gifts wrapped in particular colors and, to some, the unsettling proof that the holiday’s religious meaning has been lost.

Almost that other holiday?

Exactly like that other holiday.

All of which suggests that, beyond the labels of any faith one happens to be born into, that childish desire for the largest human need, to give and receive expressions of love among one another, still prevails.

Yariv Ben-Eliezer, grandson of David Ben-Gurion, and Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry S. Truman, light the menorah for the annual White House Hanukkah Reception, December 15, 2008.

Yariv Ben-Eliezer, grandson of David Ben-Gurion, and Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry S. Truman, light the menorah for the annual White House Hanukkah Reception, December 15, 2008. (George W. ush Presidnetial Library)


Categories: Diversity, Hanukkah, Holidays

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6 replies »

  1. Mazel Tov on a well written blog!


  2. Excellent! You must research and write 24/7.


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