What exactly is Chanukah?

A completely minor holiday, right? Wait, no, it’s a major big deal, one of the defining festivals of American Jewish life. Well, no it isn’t, it’s a holiday so minor you only have to stop working for the time it takes tiny little wax candles to sputter out. Oh yes it is, look at all the white-and-blue wrapping paper and little dangling Jewish star earrings in the mall.

According to Dr. Dianne Ashton, a historian and professor of religion studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, the history of Chanukah in the United States maps to the story of Jews in the United States, and to some extent the history of religion in the United States as well.

“The story of how and why American Jews transformed Hanukkah into something grand reveals a mix of hope and anxiety in their experience in America,” she writes in “Hanukkah in America.” (The issue of how to spell the holiday’s name always intrudes itself into any discussion of the day and its meaning. She chooses to use Hanukkah because it’s the most official American spelling, established by the New York Times early in the last century. Dr. Ashton dismisses the Chanukah spelling we use because, she argues, readers who do not know that Ch signifies a guttural sound think that the name is the jaw-breaking — and deeply silly — Chan-anukah. An H with a dot or line below means nothing to all of us nonlinguists, she adds. We use Chanukah because we believe that our readers know what Ch means, and we like its accuracy.)

The book is part of NYU’s Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History.

Chanukah has taken various forms in the nearly two millennia between the Hasmonean period and the time when the first Jewish communities were established in the 13 colonies that later became the United States.

“I am a historian of religion, so this means that I work with various contexts and with received traditions, and what those different strands of tradition are and how they morph at different times, depending on their contexts,” Dr. Ashton said. “One of the questions that historians always ask is when did something start. One of the interesting things for me in writing about Chanukah in America is that I could find the time when it sort of started.”

Dr. Ashton could tell that Chanukah had not yet gotten much traction in America in the colonial period because her last book was a biography of Rebecca Gratz, the influential Philadelphia-based Jewish philanthropist and social activist who lived from 1781 to 1869. “She and her family left hundreds of letters — they wrote constantly — and there was no mention of Chanukah.” Dr. Ashton said. “They were strongly Jewish. They wrote about Pesach and Sukkot and Yom Kippur but not Chanukah. We assume that they marked the Shabbat of Chanukah in synagogue, but we cannot assume any more than that.

“Also, people did not have Jewish calendars throughout all this time, particularly during the colonial period. The synagogues would keep track of it. Regular folks — not so much.

“It started to be a big deal when the story began to be told in a way that made sense in American culture,” she added.

The whole image of people who fight for their beliefs is something that is very much valued in American history.

The first major mentions of Chanukah come from Penina Moise, a 19th century poet who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. She wrote a hymn for Chanukah, published in a hymnal her brothers published — the use of the word “hymn,” which is not particularly Jewish, is striking. She was living in a time and place where evangelical Protestantism was booming, “and there was a very small Jewish community,” Dr. Ashton said. “The hymn for Chanukah is striking because it is about asserting our belief in God as unchanging — but she is also using Chanukah to ask God for the forgiveness of sins. Asking God to forgive sins has nothing to do with Chanukah — but it has everything to do with the Protestants around her.”

Perhaps the single most defining event for Chanukah in America in the 19th century was prompted by Isaac Mayer Wise, the rabbi who was crucial in the establishment of the American Reform movement. Rabbi Wise had his own national weekly newspaper, the American Israelite, and in 1860 he published a serial novella about the Maccabees. “He stretched it over 39 weeks, so it became an American melodrama about Jews and religious commitment and the importance of fighting for your religious commitment, and about the importance of women in all of this.

“This is educating American Jewish readers across the country about Chanukah’s importance. And also, the Civil War started just a year later.”

There were a few things going on there at the same time.

Across the centuries, the understanding of Chanukah as being either a story of God’s helping a minority prevail over a much stronger foe or a story of strong, tough warriors doing it for themselves has gone back and forth, determined by the cultures and situations that surrounded the Jewish community. It was not surprising, then, that during the nineteenth century, when the United States fought many wars, one against itself, the warrior version was told more often.

“The whole image of people who fight for their beliefs is something that is very much valued in American history, since the Revolution and certainly since the Civil War,” Dr. Ashton said. “The Maccabees were portrayed as wonderful military heroes, devoted, brave, and strong. That really set the model, and it was revived in World War I and particularly in World War II. By the time we get to World War II, we have different denominations with their own religious schools, and each synagogue has its newsletters, and other materials. So we have the image of the fighter who is devoted, who is motivated by religious fervor, we have the Zionist movement.

“So we have many vehicles in Jewish life to promote this image, and we have many reasons in Jewish life to promote this image.”

Dr. Ashton told a story she finds particularly poignant. “Early in World War II, when people didn’t know whether we were going to win the war, a mother drew a painting of the Maccabees on a mirror in their dining room so her daughter could have a reminder that they could win battles. That gave them courage.”

Another influence on the spread of Chanukah was the influence of serialized novels, and of newspapers in general.

Why did Rabbi Wise pick Chanukah for his novella? “He was very divided about Chanukah,” Dr. Ashton said. “As a reformer, he wanted rationality, not miracles and food.” But he also knew that miracles had their place. “He said different things about Chanukah at different times,” she added. “Sometimes he said it was terrible. Get rid of it! At other times he said it was wonderful. Keep it! It’s better to look at what he did, not what he said. And what he did was write this novella.”

Cincinnati was the headquarters of the Reform movement, and Rabbi Wise and his good friend, Rabbi Max Lilienthal, were among its most prominent leaders. “They were very good friends,” Dr. Ashton said. “Wise was a difficult person, but Lilienthal was a sweetheart. He really cared about education and children. He also had a very good relationship with some of the Christian ministers in Cincinnati, and he was asked to speak at a church — he probably was the first rabbi in America to speak at a church.

“He said that the Reform movement wasn’t so great for kids. It was very rational. It was wonderful for men. But it wasn’t so great for kids. But he noticed that churches had all sorts of festivals for kids, so, with the necessary aid of the women of the congregation, he created a festival for kids at Chanukah in the synagogue. It gave kids a reason to go to synagogue. There were songs and kids were part of the candle lighting, and the kids got sweets afterward — oranges and ice cream were big at the time. And Wise did the same thing in his congregation. They were both heads of congregations and they also ran Jewish schools. They had a lot of kids in Cincinnati under their purview.”

Like Rabbi Wise, Rabbi Lilienthal had a newspaper, the Sabbath Visitor. Both of them “publicized their events, and encouraged everyone else in the country to send the descriptions of their own Chanukah celebrations,” Dr. Ashton said. “They got back reports from Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, all sorts of places. Because Chanukah has a tiny ritual — just three blessings — there is plenty of room for elaboration, which they did. It comes back to the concept of elaborating on the mitzvah,” making it more beautiful, more special. “And the way they did it was totally American. In Denver they had a drill team, and in Atlanta they wrapped the Torah in an American flag.” This period, she said, ran from 1868, right after the Civil War, to 1900.

By the turn of the 20th century, Jewish newspapers are encouraging their readers to buy gifts for their kids for Chanukah.

Chanukah started in the Reform movement and moved to the Conservative world as well. “The Orthodox came to it much more slowly, because they have so many more rituals,” Dr. Ashford said. “They didn’t really need it — until people started building Jewish day schools. Schools use the holidays pedagogically, so now, even in Orthodox day schools, you find elaborate Chanukah festivities for kids. That started around the 1950s and picked up in the 60s.

So Chanukah was coming back, and it seemed to be doing well in synagogues. But what about in homes, where it flourishes today?

To some extent, that also goes back to American culture, and even to Western culture in general. And it also goes back to that until-now-unnamed elephant in the room.

Christmas.

“What’s happening alongside the rise of Chanukah is that in the 19th century, over the course of many decades, Christmas became a domestic celebration,” Dr. Ashton said. “The thing to remember about the Christian world in the United States is that it’s extremely diverse.

“At the time of the American Revolution, 90 percent of the white population was Protestant, which means that there were many varieties of Protestants, and they were all arguing with each other. ‘I’m right.’ ‘No, I’m right!!’ ‘No, I’m right!!!!’ Over the course of the 19th century, the Catholic population grew. So Christmas became a way for Christians to have a common holiday, when they are not arguing with each other.

“Puritans in Massachusetts banned Christmas,” she added parenthetically. “It was not biblical. They thought it was pagan.” But by the 19th century, “it became a national holiday, and it was a domestic occasion.

“Because another thing that was going on in the 19th century was industrialization. And what was being produced? Stuff! Stuff to be sold.

“We have men leaving their workshops at home to work in factories, which are producing goods that are cheaper for people to buy in stores. Women go to stores to buy goods that bring men home for domestic holidays. It’s reinforced all over the place.

“And of course newspapers also need advertisers — who advertise stuff you can buy for Christmas.”

So the Jews also got in on the act.

“By the turn of the 20th century, Jewish newspapers are encouraging their readers to buy gifts for their kids for Chanukah,” Dr. Ashton said.

One big difference between Chanukah and Christmas — aside from their theologies, which could not be more different — is that Christmas at its heart is domestic, with its crèches, its tableaux of mother and child, asleep in the dark night, lit by gold. Chanukah imagery is either men in Roman military uniforms or cruses of oil and chanukiyot. Stirring, perhaps, but not cuddly. How to domesticate that? How to make it somehow cuddly.

“It’s because it’s such a tiny ritual that it leaves so much room,” Dr. Ashton said. “You can fill it with anything you like. With food. You can have your family together. You can have a good time, at home, with lights in the darkness, with hope in the middle of winter’s dark.”

Most recently, Chanukah has changed because of Chabad. “Jews had moved into the suburbs in the 20th century, and had been fighting against Christmas in public schools, in front of city halls, on public lands, against Christmas decorations and crèches set up with tax money and Jewish schoolkids being indoctrinated. So for decades, the Jewish position was to get religion out of the public schools,” Dr. Ashton said.

“Other people did not like that,” she added dryly. “It did not win us friends.

“And then Chabad came along and said, ‘No. We are taking the opposite approach. If everyone else is so happy displaying their religion, why shouldn’t we?’

“Ultimately it went to the Supreme Court, and the court ruled that when there is a menorah next to a Christmas tree, with a banner saying Happy Holidays, it’s totally fine to have them there. It’s freedom of religion.

“When it’s a crèche, though, no, because that’s an image of a god. So in effect they really have helped to strengthen where the line is going to be drawn. What is the image of a god, and what is the symbol of a festival? A menorah is not God.”

If the 21st century continues to unfold in front of us as improbably as it has until now, there is only one thing we can be sure of about the holiday of Chanukah. Like everything else, it will continue to change; like everything else, smart historians one day will be able to read much of our present from it.

Happy Chanukah!