Hanukkah isn't Jewish Christmas. Here's the story of the holiday and why we celebrate
Updated November 29, 2021 at 10:13 AM ET
Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2020.
Hanukkah is not some kind of Jewish Christmas. The holiday, which began this week, commemorates the rededication of the second temple of Jerusalem, where Jews, reclaiming the temple after a revolt, found a one-day supply of oil to light its menorah — and the supply lasted for eight nights. Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights, which in North America seems to fold it smack into the lights of the Christmas season.
Arthur Levine and Kevin Hawkes have written and illustrated a book for children that may help explain how Hanukkah and Christmas have come to be helpful neighbors — it's called The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol. Nate Gadol's actual magic is the ability to make things stretch, and Levine says that's inspired by the story of the Hanukkah miracle. "But I really wanted to create a kind of pour-quoi story about why Jews started to give presents on Hanukkah. And the truth is that it did happen at a very specific time, the late 1880s, because Jewish merchants saw an opportunity. There were, you know, more middle-class Jews around, and they thought, 'Hey, let's sell them on the idea of presents.' But that's not a particularly magical story, is it?"
On Nate Gadol's meeting with that other holiday gift-giver
So the other part of the inspiration was that when I was a kid, I remember feeling really erased by Christmas. Every time I turned on the TV, there was another Christmas special with all of these wonderful stories and characters and, you know, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman and, of course, Santa Claus. Christians have this incredibly rich mythology that has almost nothing to do with the story of Jesus, but has become associated with the wonderful celebration of Christmas. So I really wanted to add, you know, a mythological hero that Jews could call their own, hence Nate Gadol.
On hoping the book reaches more than just Jewish families
Oh, of course. And I also think that Jewish families take many shapes. Our son has been raised Jewish, but one of his parents is fully Jewish — that's me — and the other parent is Catholic. Still, he does Christmas. You know, that's a thing that brings his family together and they have all these joyful traditions. And that's an important reason why I think it's not constructive to say: "No, keep your mythology away from our mythology. Don't ever have them in the same universe." Well, why not? We all have imaginations. And you're not constructing your religion out of the stories that you tell on a holiday.
On Nate Gadol's message about helping each other out
I think that this is absolutely a story of generosity and empathy, even as it, quote, explains presents. It really does so in the context of these two families, the Glasers and the O'Malleys, going through difficult times and really wanting to help each other. And what Nate Gadol provides is really the spirit to carry out that impulse to human kindness.
This story was produced for radio by Barrie Hardymon and Samantha Balaban and was adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.
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