Hanukkah and the Christmas effect

Why a relatively minor religious holiday has become an important one to many American Jews.

orenWhen Israeli economist Oren Rigbi, now at Ben-Gurion University, came to the United States, he was surprised by the intensity of American Hanukkah celebrations. He and his colleagues, Ran Abramitzky and Liran Einav of Stanford University, suspected this cultural amplification of the holiday had something to do with Christmas. They conducted a study to put their theory to the test.

ResearchGate: How important is Hanukkah as a Jewish holiday in itself?

Oren Rigbi: Hanukkah is not considered as a very important Holiday in Israel. Unlike most other Jewish holidays, it is observed as a vacation only in the state’s elementary and high schools. Other institutes and companies operate as usual. To get a more quantitative statement of the importance of Hanukkah in Israel and in the US, we conducted a survey asking undergraduate students in the US and in Israel to list the three Jewish holidays they consider most important. Strikingly, in the US nearly 70% of the students ranked Hanukkah to be among the three most important holidays compared to less than 40% in Israel.

RG: What made you decide to study the influence of Christmas on Hanukkah?

Rigbi: All three of us grew up in Israel and only later moved to the US to pursue graduate degrees in economics. While we were in the US, we could not ignore the large differences in the importance attributed by Jews to Hanukkah compared to Israeli Jews, which naturally motivated us to try to explore this phenomenon.

RG: What is the influence of Christmas on Hanukkah celebrations in the US?

Rigbi: Families with children are in general more likely to celebrate Hanukkah, probably because of the holiday’s many traditions including candle lighting, gift giving, and eating sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) which are so attractive to young folks. It should be noted that this association between children at home and celebrating Hanukkah is greatest for Reform Jews, who are more exposed to Christmas, and lowest for Orthodox Jews, who tend to live in more segregated communities. A second effect of Christmas on Hanukkah celebration is reflected in the negative association between the share of expenditure on Jewish products (e.g. candles and dreidels) out of total expenditure and the share of Jews among the total population in a given county.

RG: How did you measure this?

Rigbi: We used two main sources of data to support our claim regarding the effect of Christmas on Hanukkah celebrations. The first is an individual-level survey data that contains information on self-reported Hanukkah and other holidays’ celebration as well as on religious denomination. This piece of data allows us to explore the association between the (self-reported) intensity of Hanukkah celebration and religious denomination for Jews with and without children at home.  The second piece of data contains information on purchasing behavior of ‘Jewish products’ in a large grocery retail chain. This data source is useful for exploring the relationship between the (actual) expenditure on Jewish products and the share of Jewish adherents among the total number of adherents in a given county.

RG: Is the effect stronger for some Jewish families than others? Why?

Rigbi: Two main features characterize the families for whom we estimate a stronger effect. First, families with children at home are more likely to celebrate Hanukkah even after accounting for the intensity of Passover celebrations. Second, even among families with children at home, the effect is strongest for Reform families followed by a slightly weaker effect for Conservative families, and an even weaker effect for Orthodox families. While the first finding is not surprising given the attractiveness of some of Hanukkah’s rituals for children, the second finding is consistent with greater exposure to other families celebrating Christmas which induces a greater intensity of Hannukah celebration. One explanation for this difference is that parents of families who are more exposed to Christmas celebrations might feel that their children are at a higher ‘risk’ of intermarriage or conversion and the intensified Hanukkah celebration is targeted at this elevated ‘risk’.

RG: Would you say that Christmas has commercialized Hanukkah in the US?

Rigbi: Christmas has definitely made some families celebrate Hanukkah with a greater intensity and with additional Christian rituals (e.g. Hanukkah bush and presents) than they would probably exhibit were Christmas celebrated during a different season of the year.

RG: How did people react to the results of your study?

Rigbi: Many US Jews find our findings very compelling. I would say that most of them seem to agree with the view that Hanukkah celebrations are, at least partially, a response to Christmas celebrations and with our suggestion that the magnitude of this response to Christmas is driven by a fear of losing Jewish identity and thus that the response varies across denominations.

RG: Why did you decide to focus on the US? Do you think the effect is the same in other predominantly Christian countries?

Rigbi: The main reason for focusing on the US is that we were living in the US when this research was conducted and witnessed the clear differences between how Hanukkah is celebrated in Israel and in the US. While I have no evidence for this, I would suspect that similar effects are likely be observed in any predominantly Christian country in which intermarriage and conversion are considered as major threats by the Jewish population, as is the case in the US.

RG: What is it like in Israel where you live? Does Hanukkah have an influence on Christmas there?

Rigbi: Hanukkah in Israel is mainly characterized by candle lighting and by eating sufganiyot. Just like in the US, the attractiveness of these two rituals for kids makes younger families more likely to celebrate Hanukkah. However, the effect of having children at home on the intensity of Hanukkah celebration is probably independent of denomination.

I do not think that the effect of Christmas on Hanukkah in the US is comparable to the corresponding effect of Hanukkah on Christmas in Israel since the fear of converting to Christianity is probably stronger among US Jews than the fear of converting to Judaism among Israeli Christians.

RG: How do you celebrate Hanukkah? Do you have children? If so, can you tell us what they’re getting for Hanukkah?

Rigbi: We celebrate Hanukkah with the daily candle lighting with family and friends. Each of my three children have their own menorah which we take with us to the various candle lighting ceremonies we attend. One ritual that is quite common in Israel and that is also practiced by my children is known as Hanukkah gelt, in which children get a small amount of money as also often presented in the form of chocolate coins. This ritual also exemplifies inter-religion effects as one of the explanations for the practice of Hanukkah gelt is the custom of tipping service providers at Christmas.

Featured image courtesy of Shawn Anderson.