Hanukkah is a minor religious holiday, barely observed by Jews in most of the world. Yet in North America, it has come to be known as the ”Jewish Christmas” and is celebrated with extravagant consumerism.
According to research by Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi, published in the June 2010 issue of the Economic Journal, this is a natural response by Jews living in America”s fiercely competitive religious marketplace. At no time of year do Jews feel more assaulted by other religions than at Christmas.
Using survey data on religious observance, the Israeli-American researchers find that it is Jews who are most concerned with assimilation who are most likely to go all out for Hanukkah, as a means of enticing their children to keep the faith.
The researchers begin with a survey comparing the holiday observances of students in Israel – where Jews are largely insulated from outside religious pressures – with students at Stanford University. Only 30% of Israelis ranked Hanukkah as a ”top three” festival celebrated by their Jewish classmates; at Stanford, the figure was over 95%.
Israel differs from the United States in many ways, so the authors also look at how various American Jews celebrate the holidays using a survey of over 5,000 Jewish households from around the United States conducted by a pair of Jewish organisations between 2000 and 2001.
The survey included questions on each family”s denomination (from Reform, the least religious group, to Orthodox, the most religious), the strength of its Jewish identity and its holiday observances. For Hanukkah, the surveyors asked on how many of the festival”s eight nights the household observed the ritual of lighting candles, a measure of the family”s ”Hanukkah-intensity”.
If Hanukkah celebrations are indeed a bulwark against Christian religious imperialism, then the most active observers of the ”Jewish Christmas” should be those who are vulnerable. The researchers hypothesise that children are most susceptible to Christmas envy – and, indeed, households with children were half as likely to skip Hanukkah candle-lighting as households with no children.
It is possible that people with children may use just about anything as an excuse to have a party – birthdays, Valentine”s Day, Halloween. So the authors compare Hanukkah with Passover, the springtime festival when Jewish parents face more modest competition from Easter.
It turns out that having children has no effect on the likelihood of attending a Seder, the traditional meal eaten on the first two nights of Passover. So it seems it is competition from Christmas – not just the presence of children – that makes families more likely to celebrate Hanukkah.
The researchers also analyse the holiday money trail, using county-by-county data on ”Jewish Products” expenditures made at a large supermarket chain. In counties where Jews are more outnumbered by Christians – and hence exposed to greater Christmas spending pressures – there is a bigger jump in purchases of Jewish products in December compared with more Jewish areas, presumably as a result of increased sales of candles, latkes and other Hanukkah paraphernalia.
Jewish expenditures also spike up during springtime Passover celebrations, when Jewish shoppers stock up on matzo and kosher wine. But the percentage increase in sales is not any bigger in Christian-dominated counties than in less Christian counties, again suggesting that Hanukkah celebration correlates with competition from Christmas.
”Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” by Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi is published in the June 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.
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