Ian Harris: Holidays, Hanukkah and Holiday Specials

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 5:40pm

"Rugrats Hanukkah"

"Rugrats Hanukkah" Buy this photo

In “The Rugrats Hanukkah,” spoiled Angelica Pickles describes Hanukkah as “that special time of year between Christmas and Thanksgiving when all the bestest holiday shows are on TV.” Indeed, more often than not the beginning of Hanukkah falls somewhere between those other two more mainstream holidays, getting lost in the shuffle of finals and travel and the general end of year chaos. And yes, between Thanksgiving and Christmas is when all of the best holiday shows are on TV. Turn on your TV anytime between November 25th and December 25th and you’re bound to find the channels stocked with classics such as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and endless marathons of “Harry Potter,” which seems to have found itself somehow categorized as a Christmas movie as well. Turn to TBS or NBC and you’ll find they are filled with holiday-centric episodes of old TV shows: “The One With the Holiday Armadillo” from “Friends” or “The Strike” (better known as “The Festivus Episode”) from “Seinfeld.” You won’t find much in the way of entertainment tailored to those who celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, but you’re not supposed to care about that. It’s the holiday season! It’s Christmas! It’s time for all the best TV shows to be on! Or is it?

As a child of an interfaith marriage between a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother, I have a slightly different perspective on holiday specials than most. My parents raised me and my brother as practicing Jews, but we have also been thoroughly steeped in Christian culture as well. We celebrate Christmas with my cousins every year; we always attend Christmas Eve services with my maternal grandparents. We would always make sure to watch “The Year Without a Santa Clause” together, as it is my mom’s favorite, and all the while dreidels and latkes often littered the house.

I loved watching Christmas movies. I still do. Lots of Jews do. There’s something appealing about the snow, the warmth, the family togetherness of those specials that is relatable to lots of Americans, not just Christian ones. But every so often I would wonder why there were hardly any movies about Hanukkah. Try to think of a classic Hanukkah movie or special. There really isn’t one. The one thing we did have, at least as children, was the Rugrats.

The “Rugrats” television series has two Jewish centric episodes, one revolving around Hanukkah and one revolving around Passover. Both of these were played endlessly in my Hebrew School growing up and I have fond memories of watching them with my friends as a kid. Until recently, it had probably been about a decade since I had seen either of them. But a few nights ago, after watching “Frosty the Snowman” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in a friend’s apartment, I convinced my friends to put on the Rugrats Hanukkah. As a kid, I remember loving the special for being one of the only kids shows to feature Jews so prominently.

Watching it now, it’s hard not to cringe. The Jews represented at the Synagogue the babies attend are so stereotypically Jewish that it’s almost (pardon the pun) cartoonish. The Rugrats grandfather and his friends are drawn with big noses and walk around saying things that sound like someone put a bunch of Yiddish words through an Anglo-Saxon translator. Much is made of the babies trying to pronounce “Cha-nu-kah” and getting spit everywhere. Jokes are made about Jews being cheap. They used to show us this in Hebrew School.

And yet, I still enjoyed it. When it comes to Hanukkah shows, there isn’t much, and part of the appeal of the Rugrats is clearly that it gives Jewish kids something at all. But I wonder if that is enough. There are some sitcoms that pay token respect to holidays that aren’t Christmas, for example, the previously mentioned holiday armadillo episode from “Friends.” But I’ve always felt like that episode and others like it come off as though they were written by people who wanted to include Hanukkah in their show but knew absolutely nothing about it.

Ask anyone who isn’t Jewish what the story of Hanukkah is, they likely cannot tell you. Even though Hanukkah is viewed by the larger American culture as the most recognizable Jewish holiday, it’s one of our least important, falling at least behind Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. It has an inflated sense of importance in America because of its proximity to Christmas, and surely a holiday with presents and lights must be just as important to Jews as Christmas is to Christians? It isn’t. But despite its over-exposure, most people still don’t know why we light the candles.

Countless TV shows and Christmas movies exist outlining and defining for children the meaning of Christmas. To an extent that meaning has been taken on by Jews and others religions as well. Why are there so many Christmas songs written by Jewish people? Have Rudolph and Frosty transcended religion to become just general American icons, like the Peanuts or Mickey Mouse? I love “The Year Without a Santa Clause” because it is my mom’s favorite. But I also love “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” because of my dad. Jews love Christmas entertainment; they love it almost as much as Christians do. That might be because Christmas media has come to define a season and a time of the year more than it has a specific religious observation. It might also be because if you don’t like Christmas carols and Santa Clause, it’s not like you really have a choice.

People like the holidays because of all the fond memories associated with them. At the end of the day, the holidays are about family. Why does “Harry Potter” now count as a Christmas movie? Probably because millions of people have really fond memories of growing up watching those movies with their parents, their siblings and their friends. For my family, watching “The West Wing” episode “In Excelsis Deo” has slowly become a tradition we do every year. The same is true of “The Year Without a Santa Clause,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and many other movies that families share a collective memory of. So whether you prefer Frosty or Rudolph, Latkes or Eggnog, Angelica Pickles or Tommy Pickles, enjoy these moments of togetherness with the people you love.

I love “The Year Without a Santa Clause” because my mom made us watch it, and she made us watch it because her mom made her watch it. My kids, whatever religion they practice, will probably watch it too. Hopefully, when they do, I’ll also have something to show them that isn’t “The Rugrats Hanukkah.” Or maybe instead we will just watch “The Prince of Egypt.” I always liked Passover better anyways.

Happy Holidays.