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Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

November 18, 2014 Archive Insight

American society became more child-centered as the birthrate climbed after World War II. Like other aspects of American life during this “baby boom” era, Jewish ritual observances in the home became more child-focused, as reflected in this 1953 publication. (Object ID.2005.29.32) (Gift of Judith E. Endelman and William D. Epstein in memory of Miriam Ruth Epstein)

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the few and the weak over the mighty and the strong.  Legends and stories surround the holiday’s origins, whose name means “dedication” in Hebrew.

For centuries, Hanukkah was a modest occasion, a minor holiday. Jewish law and custom only required the lighting of candles for eight nights, with one candle to be used as the shamash (“guard” or “servant” in Hebrew) to light the others. The lighted candles were to be kept by a window where they could be seen by passers-by. In Eastern Europe, the celebration included eating latkes (potato pancakes), distributing small amounts of Hanukkah gelt (coins) to children, playing games with a dreidel (a spinning top), and playing cards.

The section on Hanukkah in We Celebrate the Jewish Holidays includes traditional blessings and songs (in English and Hebrew), as well as suggestions for home decorations and games for parties. (Object ID.2005.29.32) )Gift of Judith E. Endelman and William D. Epstein in memory of Miriam Ruth Epstein)

In America, Hanukkah continued to be celebrated in this modest way, if at all. After the Civil War—as the American Christmas began to transform itself into a holiday of decorations, parties, shopping, and gift-giving—American Jews were drawn to the bright lights and excitement of Christmas, which became a federal holiday in 1870.

Leading rabbis worried that, compared to the increasingly popular celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah lacked “romance” and allure. The campaign to revive and enhance Hanukkah began in the 1880s. Families were encouraged to create a festive atmosphere at home, to have Hanukkah parties, and to exchange gifts. By the 1920s, Hanukkah had begun to assert itself as a major Jewish domestic holiday.

Hanukkah reached its full flowering in the child-centered culture of post-World War II America.  Beginning in the 1950s, not only did more families celebrate the holiday, the celebrations became more elaborate. Jewish organizations encouraged this with books and manuals to help families make the holiday more appealing (and discourage the celebration of Christmas).  Families might exchange gifts for eight nights, light several menorahs, give parties, prepare special foods, and decorate their house.

By Judith E. Endelman, former Director, Benson Ford Research Center, at The Henry Ford.

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