Growing up in a Jewish bubble of schools, camps, youth groups—the whole megillah, so to speak—I never really knew anyone who didn’t celebrate Hanukkah until I was about 16.
Our street in Dollard-des-Ormeaux was almost entirely populated by Jews, save for one family. And, to this day, we’re still wondering what enticed them to live there.
One of the other houses had a Hanukkah bush, which my family thought was both hilarious and slightly offensive.
So, despite not having any friends of my own who celebrated Christmas, I was still very aware of it. I mean, how could you not be? Have you been to a grocery store at this time of year? ”Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” plays through every walk down the aisles and while waiting in line, even in the neighbourhoods where they don’t sell too many seasonal hams.
As if you need to be reminded of this at the dawn of December.
That’s what struck me as so hilarious when discussing the phenomena of the token Jewish characters in these recent Hallmark Hanukkah-slash-Christmas movies made for the greeting card company’s American channel—although many of them are filmed in Canada, and air here on the W Network.
These seem like a progression from the “Chrismukkah” concept popularized in 2003 on the show The O.C. But this year’s Hallmark offering, Eight Gifts of Hanukkah, is considered a cultural breakthrough for featuring two fully Jewish main characters, played by Israeli actress Inbar Lavi and Toronto’s own Degrassi legend Jake Epstein. (Jake is a veteran of this genre.)
Jewish leads in these prior films (which have also been produced for a rival network, Lifetime) often know none of the words to Christmas songs, can’t seem to make a gingerbread house—because we’re presumably terrible at learning how to do new things—and don’t seem to know a single thing about the Claus-themed holiday.
However, in the world of Hallmark, it’s something these romance-loving characters “always wanted to do!” (Read in an overly cheerful voice for full effect.)
Admittedly, it was only when I dated a non-Jew that I really truly understood how much the wild commercialism of this pagan-turned-Coca-Cola-infused holiday corrupted modern-day North America. It’s something you can’t entirely grasp from watching TV.
While others were buying copious amounts of Christmas presents, and emptying their bank accounts in the name of holiday cheer, I was silently laughing at how ridiculous it all was. You can probably guess what happened next.
Reader, I had to become part of it myself.
As a sort of compromise, my ex-boyfriend and I celebrated each other’s holidays, as every good interfaith couple should. (Right? I’m seeking retroactive validation, people.)
Suddenly, I found myself at the mall in the weeks leading up to Xmas, anxiously hunting for the perfect gifts.
“How is your Christmas shopping going?” had previously been a question I had always bluntly answered with, “I don’t celebrate.”
Now, the response that came out of my mouth was, “Ugh! I’m almost done.”
And when someone would exclaim something like, “Gearing up for the holidays is so stressful!” I was suddenly replying with a simpatico nod: “I know, right?”
(Not gonna lie, receiving a bunch of presents from my ex’s family was kind of nice. I couldn’t quite get into the decorating part, though.)
The thing is, I was extremely hyperaware that I wasn’t supposed to be doing the things I was doing. I could feel my hypothetical future generations assimilating with every accumulative “Ho ho ho!”
Plus, I felt uncomfortable doing it, something that expressed itself passive aggressively at times. No, I don’t want to string up lights or decorate your tree. (Can you tell why we broke up?)
All of this to say, if real life was like a Hallmark Hanukkah movie, I’d have been the worst possible protagonist.
“Look who I brought home for the holidays!” my perfect-looking goyishe greeting-card stud would exclaim to his equally beatific parents and siblings. “The Christmas Grinch! Not only does she have zero interest in helping us celebrate this holiday which she doesn’t connect to in any way, but she’s Jewish!”
“And I do know all the words to your silly jingly songs,” I’d snarkily respond. “Most of them were written by Jews like me.”
The family would sit there, their mouths agape, just waiting for me to patiently leave so they could get back to their holiday cheer.
Maybe this is why I have no interest in contributing to the Hallmark franchise—and I’m a Canadian actress who can use the work.
Out of curiosity, I once asked one of my agents if she ever submitted me for these roles (full disclosure: at that point I’d never had a Hallmark audition before, but I’ve had a few since then) to which she sincerely replied: “Ilana, I think you have too much depth.”
It’s possibly the greatest professional compliment I’ve ever received.
And yes, I’ve attended many parties flecked with the symbolism of Christmas. I’ve participated in more Secret Santas than I’m comfortable disclosing. (I just recently learned about the Jewish version, Mysterious Maccabee, oy vey.) I’ve even worn ugly Christmas sweaters. (It was to conform to a heavily enforced dress code, I swear!)
But it was ultimately hard for me to feel like I was adding to the disappearance of my own culture and history.
My ex didn’t want to blend our holidays. As a result, there were no Jewish baubles on the tree (fine by me), we had no Hanukkah decorations near the Santa ones (this was questionable), and he expected distinct celebrations for each.
It all left me feeling pretty suppressed.
I felt a strong need to drown out his never-ending Christmas playlist with Hanukkah songs, and then realized how juvenile they sounded next to crooners like Frank Sinatra, no matter how hard some artists have tried to update ditties like “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
On my last Chrismukkah in the relationship, the winter before COVID came to town, the two of us were in Switzerland. We hit up every Christmas market in our midst.
Luckily, his brother who lives there was kind enough to suggest we pay attention to Hanukkah, which was starting after sundown.
That first evening, we lit a scented candle the brother’s girlfriend bought, and made a Swiss rendition of latkes: rosti separated into little clumps. I was touched, but felt wildly isolated singing the Hebrew prayers before the Christmas music came back on.
Forget about eight crazy nights—because this celebration didn’t make it to the end of one.
Let’s be honest. No producer is going to make a Hallmark movie about an experience like the one I had.
But a holiday celebrating how the Jews overcame assimilation needs stories like these, too.
Check out the latest episode of The CJN’s weekly current affairs podcast Bonjour Chai, where Avi Finegold, David Sklar and myself investigate a big question about Hallmark movies for Hanukkah: “Did anyone actually ask for these?”
And one last thing before you go: here’s a sketch comedy video I created last December to celebrate my freedom to celebrate my own holiday—even though everyone was stuck in lockdown mode on Zoom.
It’s about the experience of being the only Jew at a Secret Santa celebration of Christmas.
The most revealing part came when I first read the script with my other troupe members. They had genuinely thought Hanukkah was the biggest holiday on the Jewish calendar. Not any more, my friends! All of them know better now.
My work is done here.
HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai