At this time of year, commercialization of Christmas is a common conversation.
Though a religious observance, the holiday commands billions of dollars each year from what can be characterized as secular marketing messages. Nonreligious and religious products, goods and services related to Christmas flood the market for several weeks each year. People who don’t necessarily characterize themselves as religious nonetheless spend considerable money on what they describe as their observance of Christmas.
For many years, Hanukkah, which also tends to fall at this time of year, has escaped this sort of commercialization. However, the past few seasons have seemed to indicate that will change.
This attention is a double-edged sword for a variety of reasons. You might simply say Hanukkah has arrived. But what has it arrived at?
Hanukkah is actually a paradoxical observance; it’s not one of Judaism’s most significant observances. It also is the commemoration of an important historical event.
So when we consider increased commercial attention to a smaller holiday, the recent uptick of Hanukkah-related merchandise flooding the market is somewhat puzzling. What’s behind it? Ultimately, it’s essentially an attempt to capitalize on the perceived opportunity to secularize a religious event in Jewish history.
Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew and is a Festival of Lights. It recalls the efforts of Judah the Maccabee and his followers in resisting assimilation into Greek culture and beliefs.
In the second century B.C.E., Israel was controlled by Syrian-Greeks known as Seleucids. These rulers attempted to outlaw belief in the God of Israel and mitzvah observance.
Tensions escalated, resulting in the Maccabees defeating a much larger army. They forced the Seleucids out of Israel and reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Before evacuating the temple, the Seleucids contaminated all but a small amount of olive oil. This was a direct show of contempt for the Hebrews’ religious rites, because the remainder of oil that remained pure for use in rituals was only a one-day supply.
Despite this limited supply, the Maccabees were able to light the menorah for eight nights, allowing enough time for preparation of new oil that met conditions of ritual purity. This miracle led to the institution of Hanukkah, an eight-night Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah 2017 started at sundown Tuesday and continues through Wednesday. It is marked by what is perhaps Hanukkah’s most commercial season to date.
In terms of its significance in Judaism, Hanukkah is one of many events that commemorates how adherents maintained their beliefs under unfavorable conditions. In addition to recalling the miracle, the observance is a time to reaffirm heritage and faith.
For those of us who aren’t Jewish, Hanukkah is a visible reminder of how a faith and a people continue to persevere under what seems to be impossible conditions. As we might lament the commercialization of Christmas, we might also consider shaking our heads over Hanukkah receiving such treatment.