Chanukah Isn't Christmas: How TV Gets It Wrong (Almost) Every Time
Chanukah is not Christmas.
I realize that, on the surface, that distinction should seem rather self-evident (what with the whole Jewish/Christian being entire different religions thing).
But sadly, the difference has not been honored on television.
My Jewish heritage is wildly misrepresented at holiday time, lumped together with Christmas. According to television, Chanukah and Christmas might periodically manifest different external trappings - you say, "jelly donuts," I say "belly full of jelly," - but deep down, behind the screen, they're exactly the same, which means a one-size Holiday Special fits all!
On Friends, Ross as the Hannukah Armadillo. Image: NBC
This misguided sentiment was flat out articulated in an episode of the early 1990s sitcom, Love & War, where WASPy Wally assured her Jewish boyfriend, Jack, that religion was no obstacle to their relationship since, "Chanukah and Christmas aren't all that different. They both celebrate Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men... and Women!"
Actually, Christmas celebrates Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men (she threw in that part about the women).
Chanukah celebrates a hard-won victory over an occupying army.
And what did that occupying army do, exactly, that so pissed off the People of Israel that they were willing to hole up in the hills and launch repeated, arguably suicidal raids against a foe with more men and superior weapons? Turns out that Syrian Greek King Antiochous had passed an edict ordering Jews to give up their trappings, traditions and texts, and to become like everyone else around them.
Chanukah celebrates a triumph over forced assimilation. (And as for those Jews who wanted to assimilate... let's just say the zealots known as the Maccabees weren't too fond of them, either.)
But, somehow, that part of our important story doesn't come up much on TV.
The few shows who do decide to tackle that other, other December holiday (Kwanzaa and Diwali are similarly misrepresented or ignored), skip straight to the end and the miracle part: the oil that burned for eight nights amidst the destroyed temple. (Why was said temple destroyed in the first place? Eh, details.)
When Ross, on Friends, decided to teach his son about Chanukah (while dressed as an armadillo; why he did that is also a superfluous - and contrived - detail), they literally cut from "Let me tell you the story of Chanukah" to "And that's why we light the candles." Without ever answering the question or telling the story. (And then music from Fiddler on the Roof played because... why not?)
On Brothers & Sisters, Paige is assured that Chanukah teaches us to have "Faith in each other, faith in ourselves." That's it, nothing more, moving on.
On Sisters, the example of the Maccabees supposedly inspires newly-converted Frankie and her Jewish husband, Mitch, to stand up against anti-Semetic vandalism. But, the real moral of that particular episode, Teach Your Children Well, is that holidays bring families together, and a 4th Act Chanukah party is just the thing to reconcile feuding sisters Teddy and Alex. See, Chanukah is exactly like Christmas!
It's supposed to be so like Christmas that on Even Stevens' holiday show, Heck of a Chanukah, Louis has a Festival of Lights nightmare wishing he'd never been born - that seems awfully, awfully similar to that other holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life.
On The Nanny, one of television's few Jewish female characters, Fran, prays for a Chanukah miracle after her husband and stepdaughter are lost in a snowstorm with only enough gas in their tank to keep the car's heater running for an hour (can you guess where this is going? Because if you can't, you'll have to turn in your TV watching card). And whom does Fran pray for this miracle with? A nun. 'Cause, you know, no difference.
And on Northern Exposure, Jew-out-of-his-element Joel is encouraged to put up a Christmas tree because it's not a religious symbol at all, but "something for everyone to enjoy. Buddhists, Muslims, Rastafarians...."
In that case, it's no wonder that, about a decade later, The OC would give us Chrismukah, "The greatest super-holiday known to mankind, drawing on the best that Christianity and Judaism have to offer... Eight days of presents followed by one day of many presents."
The holiday mash-up was such a hit that not only did it inspire real-life products and a shout-out on Grey's Anatomy, but The Jewish Museum of Berlin even erected a special exhibition to it.
Somehow, television managed to take a holiday about resisting assimilation, and turned it into a celebration of that very thing!
On the one hand, you can't really blame them. Sentimental life lessons and tearful reunions are television's bread and butter. And December is already filled to the brim with holidays, just be grateful we acknowledged you exist, okay? Now sit quietly until it's time for Eassover. (Is that a thing, yet?)
On the other hand, two unexpected and very different shows were able to tackle Chanukah from a more authentic perspective without sacrificing either plot points - or laughs.
The children's cartoon, Rugrats, actually told most of the story in language preschoolers could identify with - bullies, being forced to do something you don't want to do, standing up for yourself - while also weaving in authentic holiday music and yes, even a moral about two lifelong enemies (in this case, a pair of stubborn Grandpas) burying the hatchet. All that and a recipe for latkes, too!
Even more unexpected than a children's show succeeding where much adult fare has failed was one of the best, true representations of the true meaning of Chanukah coming from the UPN/CW sitcom, Girlfriends.
While the epidosdeAll God's Children starts off with Joan rhapsodizing about how wonderful it is that Christian Toni and Jewish Todd have put hostility over their divorce and custody battle aside so that their daughter, Morgan, can celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah with her parents, soon the grandmothers are playing tug-of-war over the baby's ultimate religious upbringing. Every character, including the titular girlfriends, gets to offer an opinion on why their particular (in some cases, very particular) way is the only way, in a manner that's funny and true to life. And even though Toni initially buckles under and agrees to let Morgan be raised Jewish in exchange for Todd dropping his request for full custody, she changes her mind at the last minute. Todd, however, sticks to his guns, as does Toni's mother, and even her friend, Maya who, personally, is upset that her husband just went from Baptist to Episcopalian!
Nobody's views are presented as being absolutely right, and nobody's views are presented as being absolutely wrong. The only thing that's shown is a variety of people expressing a specific religious preference on television (rare enough in and of itself) and voicing undiluted opinions about their faith(s) that might not be to everybody's taste - then refusing to back down when lectured that "it's all basically the same, isn't it?" (Though even that poistion is given airtime).
A Chanukah TV episode where different people are allowed to hold unapologetic yet conflicting views about religion?
Now that's a miracle!
- Alina Adams