Last week, a reporter from the Jewish Times called to ask when Chanukah gift-giving first became popular in America. I had no clue, but I knew where to find the answer: in the book Wonders of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of American Jewish popular culture. I pulled the book off the shelf, looked up “Chanukah” in the index, and relayed the relevant details to the reporter. I thought it would be pertinent to share Joselit’s observations with you as well.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Joselit writes, “more American Jews were inclined to experiment with Christmas than with Chanukah. Beguiled by its charms, they adorned their homes with greenery and eagerly exchanged gifts.” Along with other Americans, Jews ignored the religious meaning behind Christmas and enjoyed its “secularized, commodified, and mirth filled dimensions.” The holiday’s appeal was not limited to “well-established Jews”—it trickled down to immigrants as well. “According to the Jewish Daily Forward, a startlingly large proportion of new arrivals took quickly to the custom of giving Christmas presents, a practice allegedly as widespread as the exchange of Purim gifts. ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized,’ the paper quoted several immigrants as saying. ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’”
Jewish leaders tried to promote Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, but “no amount of rhetorical excess could disguise the fact that Chanukah’s charms paled in comparison with those of Christmas.” Joselit does not identify who came up with the idea of giving gifts as part of celebrating Chanukah, or precisely when the custom took off, but gift-giving was clearly a key part of the holiday’s revival in the 1920s. That’s when Chanukah “began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Not surprisingly, this was a time of upward mobility for the increasingly Americanized immigrants, who were looking for ways to combine their American and Jewish identities. What better way than to fit Chanukah into modern American consumer society?
Yiddish newspapers of the 1920s “carried dozens of tempting advertisements for Chanukah gifts, from automobiles to waffle irons.” While advertisers saw Chanukah as a way to sell a wide array of products, newspaper editors saw the products as a way to sell Chanukah. Editorials encouraged readers “to add the exchange of presents to the roster of Chanukah customs.” As one newspaper counseled, “To command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.”
In addition to its commercialization, Joselit writes, “a search for religious parity” proved to be the other key factor in Chanukah’s success in the years after World War II, “when it emerged not only as the Jewish antidote to Christmas but as its functional equivalent.” For second and third generation Americans, Chanukah became an important way to express Jewishness. By the 1950s the celebration of Chanukah had become “one of the few Jewish ritual practices actually to grow rather than diminish in popularity.”
Happy Chanukah everyone!