Throwback Thursday: Where Did The Hanukkah Bush Come From?

Throwback Thursday: Where Did The Hanukkah Bush Come From?

At sundown on December 16, Jews all over the world lit the first candle on their menorahs and began this year’s Hanukkah celebration. The holiday, sometimes referred to the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean revolt against Seleucid Greeks, one of the first recorded fights for religious freedom. Often thought of as the “Jewish Christmas,” American Jews have transformed Hanukkah from a minor Jewish holiday to a grand, commercialized one over the past 200 years.

Like Christianity, Judaism has two major celebrations, neither of which is Hanukkah. The two major Jewish holidays are Yom Kippur and Passover; Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and the holiest day of the year, and Passover celebrates the liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. These holidays, as well as several other holidays that “outrank” Hanukkah, require restrictions on what people can eat and do. Hanukkah, on the other hand, does not have any accompanying rules, which makes the holiday more accessible to a lot of people. The ease of celebration, in addition to the holiday’s close proximity to Christmas, has made Hanukkah the most celebrated–-and commercialized–-Jewish holiday in America. However, there are some historical reasons as to why Hanukkah in America has become increasingly commercialized.

For a majority of Jews in Europe, poverty and scarcity were part of the everyday experience. America, on the other hand, was associated with abundance, prosperity and conspicuous consumption. During the 19th century, a combination of a rising consumer economy and the expansion of department stores allowed for the commercialization of the Christmas holiday. By the early 20th century, Jewish newspapers began to advertise Hanukkah gifts sold in Jewish-owned stores. Giving gifts on Hanukkah allowed immigrant Jews to both demonstrate their new, more affluent lifestyles and show that they fit in with American consumer culture. In the 1950s, the postwar suburban boom began, and families began moving out of the cities in droves. By no longer living in urban ethnic areas where everybody was like them, Jewish families were exposed to what their neighbors were doing to decorate for and celebrate Christmas, and Hanukkah decoration customs, such as the Hanukkah Bush, were born.

Today, the market is inundated with Hanukkah-themed products and decorations inspired by Christmas traditions and toys. American Jews can buy gingerbread Hanukkah house kits, a Mensch On A Bench (instead of an Elf On The Shelf) and even Hanukkah-themed ornaments. While some conservatives may see the commercialization as detrimental to the Jewish faith, there are Jewish scholars and leaders who see the borrowing from Christian traditions as part of how Jews embrace larger culture in their traditions. For example, what most people think of when it comes to traditional Jewish food was really just borrowed from the different countries Jews lived in in Eastern Europe. While the Macabees probably did not envision future Jews celebrating their victory by decorating a six-foot tall menorah tree, the rise of Hanukkah in America has given people more opportunities to celebrate their faith.

Cover Photo Source: Sergey Karpov

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Jenny is a Junior Executive at SJG. She earned her BA in Psychology and a minor in Educational Studies in 2014 from Colgate University. Outside the office, Jenny loves to travel (usually to Disney World), bake and watch copious amounts of TLC.[/author_info] [/author]