Virtual Advent Calendar, December 5: Oh Hanukkah



There are two questions that always come to mind when Oh Hanukkah pops up on my Holiday playlist shuffle.  The first is, “How can anyone listen to this song and not get up and dance?”  The second is, “Waitisn’t it a little weird that this song is on so many recent Christmas albums?

One of the more interesting trends over the past decade is the growing number of Christmas albums that feature a single song acknowledging and celebrating Hanukkah. I am not entirely sure why this trend started.  There have always been a ton of Jewish artists recording Christmas albums — Barbara Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Bette Midler, and Neil Diamond, to name but a few that have each made multiple recordings  — but until recently none of them ever bothered (or was permitted) to do so.  So why now?

I honestly don’t know. The lack of even a few Kwanza ditties here and there suggest this movement isn’t forced multiculturalism.  And throwing a lone Hanukkah song between a dozen songs about Santa and the baby Jesus seems a dubious methood to boosting sales among the Chosen People. I might guess that it was an simply an acknowledgement of Our Shared Judeo-Christian Values, except the people who go on and on about Our Shared Judeo-Christian Values are the same people who  argue that putting a Hanukah song on a Holiday album is part of the War on Christmas.  So really, I’m baffled.

Whatever the reason, you’ll get no complaints from me.  As anyone who’s ever attended a Jewish wedding can attest, Jewish celebrations always seemed cranked up a few notches higher than everyone else’s. These new Hanukkah numbers are often the most fun tracks on their respective albums. And out of all of them, none appears as often as Oh Hanukah.

The tune of Oh Hanukkah is based on an old Jewish folk song.  Just how old it might be I have never been able to determine.  (It goes back at least to the 19th century, as the classical composers Hirsh Koypt and Joseph Achron each incorporated it into separate folk-inspired pieces in the early 20th century.)  Most places I have gone to research Oh Hanukkah’s origin seem equally unsure of its history; the one thing they do all agree on is that the song is not nearly as popular in Israel as it is in the United States.  And when you think about it, this makes perfect sense.

For Americans, Christmas is the 900 lb gorilla in the holiday ballroom.  It simply dwarfs everything else throughout the calendar.  It’s literally impossible to escape its clutches the entire month in between Thanksgiving and December 25. Many retail stores now start putting up some early yuletide decorations as early as the end of September.  Hanukkah, by contrast, is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar.   The entire practice of giving Hanukkah gifts is in no small part a way to placate children who watch their neighbors and classmates regularly rack up annual loot from Santa.  So it makes sense that in a country where you might expect Christmas-Everything-Everywhere-All-The-Time to be dialed down to “Sane” like Israel, a song celebrating a minor holiday would score a bit lower in the folksong rankings.

Interestingly, some of the Jewish artists who are adding Hanukkah songs to Holiday albums are embracing the popularity chasm between Christmas and the Festival of Lights.

For example, there’s the band The Leevees, an all-Hanukkah-music band made up of members of the indie bands Guster and The Zambonis.  (And yes, before you ask, The Zambonis are a post-punk rock band that records nothing but songs about hockey.)  A lot of their recordings seem to be in high demand for Christmas compilation albums these days, but none more so than their song My Goyim Friends.

And when Adam Schlesinger, the Jewish bassist who pens half of the songs for Fountains of Wayne, was hired by Stephen Colbert to write a albums worth of original Holiday songs for A Colbert Christmas, he gave us Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?  In it, Schlesinger satirically pokes at both the folly of middle-class Jewish-American’s attempts to compete with Christmas head on and middle-class Christian-Americans ignorance and disinterest in anything that isn’t about themselves.



Just as the Christmas and the Holidays themselves are better when they’re as inclusive as possible, so too are Christmas and Holiday albums.  As I say, I’m not sure why this recent trend of Hanukkah songs on Christmas albums started, but I very much hope it’s here to stay.



The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar


December 1 — God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

December 2 — Merry Xmas (War Is Over)

December 3 — Baby It’s Cold Outside

December 4 — Maybe This Christmas


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16 thoughts on “Virtual Advent Calendar, December 5: Oh Hanukkah

  1. I’m going to try to find a Yiddish version of Oh Hanukkah to post tonight and some other Hanukkah songs like Maoz Tsur and maybe some Ladino ones like Ocho Kandelikas.

    The secularization of Hanukkah is even more interesting than the secular version of Christmas considering its an observes the victory of Traditionalists over Hellenizers in a Jewish civil war.

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      • I’m not sure if I can make the secularization of Hanukkah into an entire post but it was basically an immigrant response to Christmas in early 20th century America.

        For most of Jewish history after the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, Hanukkah was an exceedingly minor holiday for various reasons. The main one was that the Rabbis were descendents of the Pharisees and the Hasmonean monarchy that emerged after the Maccebbean Revolt persecuted the Pharisees. The Rabbis felt it important to include Hanukkah but limited it to a minor holiday status and did not include the Books of the Maccabbees in the Tanakh.

        All of this remained good and well into the mid-19th century when secular Christmas emerged with full force into the European and American worlds. Secular Christmas with its treees, gifts, treats, and Santa Claus is a very appealing Holiday for kids. Previously this wouldn’t be an issue because Jews were kept in ghettos and socially isolated but by the mid-19th century Jews in Central and Western Europe were outside the ghettos, acculturating and assimiating, and also secularizing. Lots of them took up the celebration of Secular Christmas for the kids and did not think too much about any theological issues involved with Jews celebrating Christmas.

        Than the governments of Russia and Romania learned that Jews made good scapegoats and millions of what were than called Ost-Juden, the East Jews, left Russia and Romania. The Ost-Juden were Orthodox in religion and generally stayed so for longer than their Central European cousins. Even if a German Jew was Orthodox when they immigrated to the United States, they usually dropped a lot of this upon entry. The Ost-Juden stayed ostensibly Orthodox for at least a generation or two in the United States or elsewhere. Most Jewish baby-boomers, the grandchildren of the Ost-Juden immigrants, were the first in their family not raised Orthodox.

        The Jews of Eastern Europe had many more concerns about celebrating Christmas because they saw it as a Christian celebration even its most secularized and commercial form. The fact that the Jews of Eastern Europe had a folk tradition of treating Christmas as a day of semi-morning did not help the manner. At the same time, secular Christmas is still a very appealing holiday for kids and some immigrant parents thought that something had to be done. Somewhere, probably on the Lower East side in New York City, a Jewish immigrant parent or group of parents rediscovered Hanukkah and noticed that it tends to fall around the same time as Christmas and can be turned into a Jewish gift giving holiday without too many problems. This solved the problem of Christmas envy without having to actually celebrate Christmas.

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  2. I thought this was an interesting story, as well as a pretty good song.

    (I tend to prefer the more “bouncy / energetic” songs for the holidays. If I listen to too many of the sad / introspective songs, I end up crying on the couch. As I’ve gotten older, there are so many loved ones that have passed and people who live too far away to stay close.)

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  3. As the Most Jewish Person Available, I was called upon to speak to my son’s preschool class about Hanukkah yesterday. (Interest was sparked when my son brought our menorah for show-and-tell on Monday.) It was delightful, actually, particularly the bit where (repeating after me) a dozen 4-year-old giddily yelled “Maccabees!!!”

    I was forced to admit ignorance when asked why jelly doughnuts are a traditional Hanukkah food. (I was informed a short time later via text message from my Jewish best friend that it is because they are fried in oil.)

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  4. You are quite the musicologist Tod. Lee’s comment on the secularization of Hannukah is about as good as it gets and can probably be pasted into an entry.

    The more fraught issue is how much Christmas exposure to Jews give to their children. Dahlia Lithwick’s article on what Christmas specials she and her husband were allowed to watch is a minor classic: My favorite quote:

    “I, for instance, grew up in a household that viewed only How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas as acceptable Jewish holiday fare. My husband, on the other hand, tells me he grew up with unfettered access to the whole panoply of animated Christmas specials. When we discussed this for the first time last weekend, I gasped: “They let you watch Rudolph?” I confess that I spoke the words as though his family had permitted him to spend his Decembers camped out in a crèche.”

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  5. As promised here are more Hanukkah songs.

    We start with Oh Hanukkah in Yiddish and English sung by Theodore Bikel:

    Than comes another favorite from Medieval Germany, Maoz Tzur, which translates as Rock of Ages that asks God for redemption

    We follow with Peter, Paul, and Mary singing Hayo Haya, which briefly tells the story of Hanukkah.

    Coming up next is Oregon’s Pink Martini singing in Ocho Kandelikas, a Ladino song. Its not a very old song, it was written in 1983.

    We end with the dreydl song in Yiddish

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