You can, if you like, call it progress. Decades ago, when I was growing up, I was thrilled whenever I spied anything on television that gave any sort of play to a Jewish holiday.
In those days, when American popular culture often gave short shrift to minority religious observances, coming across anything that gave Chanukah equal time with Christmas on the small screen was about as likely as your chances to hear the public-school choir sing "Maoz Tsur" as part of the annual holiday program.
Those were the bad old days, when Jewish children had to rely on their own resources and inner strength to resist the blandishments of the Christmas season that so consumed everyone else we knew.
Things have changed since then. Supreme Court decisions ultimately rendered public-school observances religiously neutral. And though many American Jews still spend the last month of the calendar year hyperventilating about the fact that Christmas is an integral and inescapable element of American culture, acceptance of the minor Jewish festival of Chanukah has never been greater. From a postage stamp to the huge menorahs erected throughout the country by Chabad (often to the embarrassment of other Jews, who want all religious observances out of the public square), Chanukah is definitely mainstream these days.
In an effort to avoid the Christmas envy that afflicted previous generations of American Jews, baby-boomers have also helped elevate the Festival of Lights into a very big deal. That assuaged our December depression, but it has laid the foundations for other problems.
CHANGE IN THE CULTURE
Along with mass-market merchandising, Chanukah hasn't gotten just time. In some quarters, it has simply merged with Christmas to create a new end-of-year, quasi-ecumenical, yet non-religious holiday, called, by some, "Chrismukkah."
Of course, there's no such thing, but the term popularized recently by its mention on "The O.C.," a popular Fox nighttime television series represents a sea change in American culture.
One of the by-products of the acceptance of Jews in virtually every sector of American society is the fact that barriers to intermarriage are also nonexistent. And with a huge population of mixed Jewish and Christian families, many of which prefer not to make a firm choice between religions, the merging of the two December observances into some inchoate blend of menorahs and trees was inevitable.
This has spawned not just the reference on TV (made by a character from an interfaith family), but a series of greeting cards and joke gifts that will, I'm sure, be great stocking stuffers. The market economy will always provide the public with something it wants if there's a demand for it.
Complaining about all of this being a slight to Judaism (not to mention Christianity) is about as pointless these days as warnings about the long-term problems that widespread intermarriage poses to the future of American Jewry.
Let's face it: Few people are interested in the demographic facts that intermarriage statistics present anymore. Those who worry about such things have, for the most part, decided to accept it as reality, and have moved on to other fights. Others prefer to put a happy face on the story, and spin scenarios about outreach efforts turning the lemon into Jewish lemonade.
The drift toward a Chrismukkah winter wonderland for us to frolic in is merely a reflection of the low priority many people place on religious faith, notwithstanding answers to exit polls culled from the last election.
So why would we expect pop culture to do anything other than combine the December holidays into one meaningless excuse for a party?
In truth, melding disparate holiday celebrations at other times of the year is far from uncommon. The recommendation a few years ago by the Dovetail Institute, a group that provides resources for interfaith couples and their children, that families stuff their Easter ham with Passover charoset is one example that's rather hard to forget.
Decrying any of this may be as futile as spitting into the wind, but it still behooves us to remember that, the calendar notwithstanding, Chanukah really doesn't fit into the mold that the ignorant would like to stuff it into.
The mixed message that Chrismukkah brings us does the children of intermarriage no favors. Those who seek to give the next generation a piece of their Jewish heritage by combining it with the traditions of another faith are actually asserting that neither has validity. Religion may have been drained out of Christmas for many of our neighbors, but it is particularly inappropriate for us to follow suit.
That's because Chanukah is far from being a blue-tinsel version of Christmas, or a fuzzy Jewish feast of goodwill toward men. Commemorating the struggle of the Jewish people for religious and political freedom in second-century BCE, the holiday provides a particularly apt message for contemporary American Jewry.
The observance of Chanukah embodies the will of the Jewish people to stay faithful to the traditions once assailed by foreign tyrants, and which are now cast aside by our own impulse to fit into an increasingly secular world. Its essence is that standing up and being counted among those who will not bow down to the false idols of the popular culture of the day is the duty of every Jew.
For the same reason, that's why we should probably worry less about getting equal time for Chanukah this December, and more about whether we are living up to the challenge that the memory of the Maccabees' great struggle set for us.
No matter where you are on the Jewish religious spectrum or whether or not you live in an interfaith family the eight days of Chanukah ought to speak of the need to reinforce our ties with fellow Jews, and to rekindle the spark of Jewish identity within ourselves. Anything less is a terrible waste of candle power.