Every December, my holiday season officially begins when I arrive at my parents’ home and see the Star of David ornament glimmering from the branches of the Christmas tree. We don’t go to church; we eat latkes with our Feast of Seven Fishes (though Hanukkah is almost certainly already over). Yet on December 25, there are a few moments that bring about true feelings of fellowship, dare I say spirituality, even for a group of distinctly not religious people.
“Christmas is America’s most popular national holiday,” writes Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut in A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish. It’s the only federal holiday with a religious foundation that is celebrated both privately and publicly—in religious and secular households; in houses of worship and civil spaces. “Whereas Jews in the United States can participate in Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day celebrations, Christmas does not belong to all Americans…If not celebrating Christmas, then what is a Jew to do on Christmas in America?”
An answer to this question might seem natural: Celebrate Hanukkah. The thing is, Hanukkah isn’t really that big of a deal in the Jewish faith—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the High Holy Days (aka High Holidays), while Hanukkah is one of many annual festivals observed. Nor does it take place on Christmas Day; it does, however, typically happen sometime between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. In the U.S. specifically, many first-generation Jews’ Hanukkah celebrations in the late 1800s began to emulate their new country's December holidays. “Encountering American abundance, they augmented their holiday,” writes Dianne Ashton in Hanukkah in America: A History. “Free to remake Hanukkah according to their own desires, they reached into the Jewish past to create a religiously sanctioned cluster of ways that adapted their distinct culture to turn-of-the-twentieth-century America.”
“Hanukkah is less formal,” said Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a journalist who identifies as Orthodox. During the High Holidays and Passover, and other instances where her community unplugs technologically, “there’s a lot of food-related stress for those women who shoulder the domestic chores,” she explained. “Hanukkah is so much more low-key. You don’t have to cook in advance, you can order in.”
Of course, as the holiday became more widely celebrated, it also became more commercialized. Ashton writes that by the 1970s, parents of schoolchildren were sharing presentations about Hanukkah at assemblies; Hanukkah greeting cards began to appear next to Christmas cards; gelt and dreidels were manufactured and set out next to Santa hats and stockings. By presenting Hanukkah as a “Jewish Christmas,” the holiday was de facto elevated in its importance.
Kwanzaa, a nonreligious holiday created in 1966 to commemorate African American culture, experienced a similar elevation to Hanukkah by the mainstream media in the late 20th century, likely because it, too, takes place in December. Perhaps also because it shares some similarities with Hanukkah: At its simplest, Kwanzaa is a multiday festival marked by lighting a candelabrum. Still, it’s not widely celebrated (a 2019 survey found it’s about 3 percent of those who observe winter holidays), though a number of Black writers and cultural leaders feel the past years’ racial reckoning may help with a resurgence—and further, many who observe Kwanzaa also celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah.
“I think for a lot of people, you can either take the red pill or the blue pill on this one,” said the writer and educator Michael Twitty. “If you want to opt in to that kind of Blackness or cultural consciousness, you can. If you don't, you don't.”
The portmanteau “Chrismukkah” was largely popularized in a 2003 episode of the television show The OC (which no doubt inspired an eerie 2007 Virgin Mobile commercial that coined “Chrismahanukwanzakah.”) “So what’s it gonna be, huh? Menorah or candy cane; Christmas or Hanukkah?” asks The OC character Seth Cohen. “In this house, you don’t have to choose.” Cohen explains that his parents’ interfaith marriage led him to “create the greatest super-holiday.”
In some households, there’s plenty of truth to the concept of a Christmas-Hanukkah hybrid, or at least an observation of both—Plaut recalls his mother taking him to see a department store Santa as a child; and as an adult working as rabbi, he found many members of his congregation, regardless of background, would put up Christmas trees (or “Hanukkah bushes”) in their homes.
The cookbook author Pati Jinich grew up in Mexico City with Jewish parents, though she says her family wasn’t particularly religious, and instead focused more on the cultural traditions of their past and present: “I like to say I’m a Catholic Jew…In Mexico, most of the celebrations are tied to the Catholic church’s calendar,” she explained. “As a Jew in Mexico, I always jumped between worlds. I’d do Shabbat at my grandparents’ house. They were immigrants who fled the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. And then on Sunday I would go to church with my nana and eat tamales outside.”
To Jinich, the term “Jewish Christmas” doesn’t mean much: Her family didn’t have a tree, but observed Christmas Day in the Mexican Christian food tradition: They made ponche navideño, buñuelos, and stuffed turkey, an adobo-rubbed recipe with caramelized pineapple that appears in her latest cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table. During Hanukkah, the family celebrated with traditional Jewish foods, but there was no Christmas crossover; instead, “we Mexicanized them, like latkes with salsa macha and sufganiyot stuffed with cajeta and dipped in Mexican chocolate.”
Twitty, who identifies his practice as “Conservadox,” which falls between Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism, sees “Jewish Christmas” as a carving out of Jewish space in American society, and says that it boils down to a shared cultural identity. “Religion is only one part of Jewish civilization. And religion is a shaper, but not always central,” he said. “It's a peoplehood, the idea of us as mishpucha, as family, and a culture.” Though Twitty described the stark differences in the way Jews and Christians, particularly Black Christians, pray, he noted that for many Americans, the celebration is largely performative—“the most popular songs aren't biblical, they're written by a Jewish guy named Irving Berlin.” (Berlin indeed wrote "White Christmas," and the rest of the musical of the same name—many other popular Christmas songs, from "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" to "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer," were also written by Jews.)
If anything, to Twitty, “Jewish Christmas sounds a lot more healthy and interactive than ‘Hanukkah bush.’ As a phrase it helps us celebrate the fact that there are different kinds of Christmas, because it’s ultimately baked into the American civil religion, which doesn't require you to be a member of any particular religion. It's just simply this pattern of secular sacredness or carved-out time and space to be acculturated as American.”
I posed the question on Instagram and Twitter (the 2021 version of stopping strangers on the street): “If you’re Jewish, what do you do or eat on December 25?” The answer was almost overwhelmingly “Chinese food.”
Of course, there’s a long history—both realistically and pop-culturally—of American Jews eating Chinese food (a chapter of Plaut’s book is entitled “We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas.”) The tradition likely goes back to late-19th-century Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where both a large number of Jewish (mostly of Eastern European origin) and Chinese (by way of California) immigrants settled in close proximity. While at the time, the many groups of newcomers to the city mingled mostly with people from their own backgrounds, it became very common for Jews to dine at Chinese-American restaurants—as opposed to nearby Italian- or German-American establishments, for both the avoidance of blatant antisemitism and dairy in the meat dishes. Plaut notes the first documented mention of the phenomenon dates back to an 1899 issue of the American Hebrew magazine, which criticized Jews for not strictly patronizing kosher establishments, singling out the frequenting of Chinese restaurants. Still, the tradition stuck. Jews, Chinese food, and Christmas are often connected. (Twitty pointed to the ubiquitous scene in A Christmas Story, and how unlikely it was that the restaurant would’ve been empty, save for one family who ruined Christmas dinner.) In her 2010 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Associate Justice Elena Kagan was asked where she was on Christmas. Her retort, after a long laugh: “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
If anything, December 25 is a day of rest—without obligation—for Jews. “We do nothing,” said Chizhik-Goldschmidt. In her community, Chinese food on Christmas is more cliché than standard practice. But she sees the day as a time for togetherness without the pressure that often accompanies Jewish holidays and typical weekends, which are reserved for religious customs and weddings or bat mitzvah ceremonies respectively.
“It's a fantastic day to take a break,” added Twitty. “A time to actually have another kind of Shabbat.”
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