Owing to a quirk in the Jewish lunar calendar Hanukkah coincides with Christmas this year. While it predates the Christian festival – it is mentioned in the Bible, in the gospel of St John (“And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch”) – it is most certainly its inferior cousin in many western cultures. Where Christmas has become a major global event, Hanukkah remains overshadowed and obscure in comparison.
Hanukkah is a holiday about Jewish freedom to worship under oppression. Over eight days we commemorate the victory of Jewish people who rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.
This led to the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Often called the Festival of Lights, the holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the hanukkiah (a nine-branched candelabrum also called a menorah), traditional foods, games and gifts. It has a fixed date in the Jewish calendar but given that this is a lunar calendar it moves around each year.
But what was a minor and hence rather negligible holiday in Judaism, has risen to become the Jewish counterpart to Christmas. In the west, at least, it has come to resemble it in the exchange of gifts. Because of this, Hanukkah has appeared often on our screens – big and little – over the years. With the explosion of streaming services, it’s probably more present than ever before.
Look closely and where there are Jews, there will almost certainly be an unlit hanukkiah as a piece of ornamentation, typically used as a shortcut to quickly identify Jewishness.
I could mention its appearance in such shows as The Rugrats, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, Schitt’s Creek, The Office, Transparent and The West Wing. Or such films as The Holiday, X-Men, An American Tail and more.
The list is long and growing but here are my top five highlights.
If my non-Jewish friends and acquaintances know anything about this obscure holiday, I can guarantee that it’s probably because of the “Holiday Armadillo” episode in the long-running series in which Ross finds a novel way to teach his son, Ben, about Hanukkah.
Fighting against the flashiness of Christmas with its characters like Santa, Ross decides to create his own Hanukkah hero and dresses up as an armadillo – as Monica puts it, “because armadillos also wandered in the desert”. This is a reference to the story of the Jewish people, after escaping slavery in Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.
The armadillo does the trick and Ross is able to pass on his traditions to his son.
2. The O.C.
Seth Cohen has a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mum. How does he cope with his blended family during the often-fraught holiday season? He invents a new holiday which combines the best of Christmas and Hanukkah into Chrismukkah. As Seth explains:
eight days of presents, followed by one day of many presents. There’s also that whole family thing and lighting the menorah and Santa, but hey, gift after gift after gift!
Chrismukkah stockings are hung on the mantle right next to the hanukkiah.
It becomes a staple holiday for all the characters in the show, Jewish and non-Jewish, until the very final episode. Many offspring of mixed marriages must be very grateful to Seth.
3. The Diary of Anne Frank
This 1959 film, adapted from the book, has, as its dramatic highpoint, a moving ten-minute sequence featuring the lighting of the hanukkiah and the exchange of gifts.
A hanukkiah holds nine candles, eight which symbolise the eight nights of the holiday and another, known as the shamash, to the light the rest. A new candle is lit every day with the shamash until all eight are lit on the last night. This tradition is in remembrance of the Hanukkah miracle where candles burned for the Maccabees for eight nights despite there only being oil enough for only one.
The kindling of light in the darkness of the Holocaust takes on a particular poignancy for the Jews hiding in the attic in the movie who are hoping for their own liberation from Nazi oppression. As Mr Frank recites:
they fought against indifference, against oppression and against tyranny… May these lights remind us that we should ever look to God, whence cometh our help. Amen.
4. The Hebrew Hammer
This 2003 comedy is set at Hanukkah time in which a Jewish investigator (a “Certified Circumcised Private Dick”) must prevent an antisemitic psycho-Santa from destroying the festival. Our protagonist is named after the ancient hero of the biblical story: Judas Maccabeus who was the Jewish guerrilla leader who led the resistance against the Syrian-Greeks in Judea (modern Israel) earning the name Maccabeus or Maccabee which means “hammer”.
5. Wedding Daze
In the 2006 movie Wedding Daze, an orthodox Jewish character devises a line of stuffed animals specifically for Jewish children. One of them is the “Jewnicorn” – a unicorn wearing a prayer shawl and side locks, bedecked in Stars of David, which, when squeezed, recites the Hebrew blessing for lighting the Hanukkah candles.
There are so many more wonderful references to Hanukkah on screen but I hope this festive period you go back and watch some of these.