Chanukah just isn’t that important! Why do you think so many otherwise unaffiliated Jews go out of their way to celebrate this holiday?
Having spent much of this week shuttling boxes of candles and bags of gelt to graduate students all over the city, I can definitely agree with you that Chanukah holds a certain appeal for otherwise non-religious Jews. Whether it’s the proximity to Christmas or the natural allure of fire rituals, Chanukah is a relatively easy way for Jews to establish or maintain some connection to their traditions.
The history of Chanukah revolves around war, fighting back against physical enemies as well as the enemy of assimilation. It’s not a touchy-feely, peace-on-Earth sort of story. On the other hand, as the holiday plays out in terms of practice, it’s pretty easy to relate to: fire, fried food, gambling — what’s not to like? You don’t have to attend a long synagogue service, you don’t have to avoid or endure restrictive food rules, work is permitted and festivities are required. These factors make it entirely understandable to me why this is a much-loved holiday.
Then there’s the Christmas part of the equation. When the vast majority of America is preparing for the "most wonderful time of the year," it makes sense that Jews want in. The irony, of course, is that one of the lessons of the Chanukah story has to do with avoiding assimilation, and now Chanukah is often held up as a Christmas consolation prize or even a companion to the Christian holiday. While I loathe the sentiment that Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas” or that displaying a menorah next to a Christmas tree in public places means that everyone’s traditions have equal standing (or, worse, that putting a Jewish star on top of a Christmas tree somehow makes the tree non-denominational), there’s something nice, to me at least, about lights, happiness and good cheer during the darkest part of the year. I give presents on Chanukah without feeling like I’m trying to emulate my Christian neighbors. I revel in the knowledge that many of the world’s religious traditions have found a way to bring light and warmth to the dark and cold of winter.
I wish that more Jews would experience Shabbat in meaningful ways, that more Jews would consciously give tzedakah (charity), that more Jews would explore a million other traditions that can be really nice to incorporate into modern life. But if lighting candles and eating donuts are going to be the extent of it for many people in our community, then I’ll just have to pack up my candles and gelt and make sure they have the best Chanukah they possibly can.