On Religion

In the last decade or two, cable television’s holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Home Alone” and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Alas, then there’s “Bad Santa,” “The 12 Dogs of Christmas,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “Jingle All the Way” and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like “The Nativity Story.”

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this “holiday” entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights,” which critic Michael Arbeiter called “a travesty.” Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as “The Producers,” “Barton Fink,” “Annie Hall,” “An American Tail” or even -- “bite the bullet,” he said -- “Scrooged,” “Muppet Christmas Carol” or another take on “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” which this year begins at sundown on Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a “Jewish Christmas.” Is it really necessary to create copycat “carols” like “On the First Day of Hanukkah,” “I’m Dreaming of a Bright Menorah” and “Maccabees are Coming to Town”?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some “militaristic” themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky, author of “The Gospel According to The Simpsons” and “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Hanukkah isn’t a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles -- one on the first night, increasing to eight -- is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured, it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?

”It can seem like we are trying to demand equal time,” said Pinsky in an interview. “It’s like the goal is to put up bigger and bigger menorahs in public parks, like we are pleading for attention from the culture.”

The bottom line: Hanukkah is a low-key holiday that most cultural Jews are content to celebrate at home.

”Many Jews will do anything they can to avoid setting foot in a sanctuary,” said Pinsky. “If you make Hanukkah a home-based thing, you can do it at home or you do it over at the in-laws’ ... All you need is two or three songs, a game or two, some candles and then it’s time to open the presents. Frankly, it’s much less work that way.”

At the mass-media level, there’s another reason Hanukkah isn’t omnipresent, said Pinsky. It’s a cultural reality linked to the long list of classic Christmas songs written by Jews -- from “White Christmas” to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” from “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to “Silver Bells.”

Consider the opening lines of “The Christmas Song,” by Mel Torme, the son of Russian Jews, and co-writer Robert Wells, also Jewish: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” It’s a Christmas song -- sort of.

Truth is, most Jews in modern America “really love the secular version of Christmas” that dominates popular culture, said Pinsky.

”It’s all about home and family and sentiment and gifts and food and everything that goes with it. That has been catnip for Jewish songwriters,” he said. “These tropes all work just fine. They feel safe and inclusive. ... After all, Christmas is the time of year when Jews feel the most like outsiders in this culture. There’s no way to escape the fact that it’s not your holiday.”

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

More like On Religion