How Hanukkah went from minor festival to the front page in post-war Ontario

As the Jewish festival of lights gained prominence, rabbis and advertisers worked to balance commerce with religious meaning
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Dec 23, 2019
By the 1960s, Hanukkah had become a popular holiday for advertisers, as shown here in the November 25, 1964, issue of The Globe and Mail.

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If you opened any newspaper in Ontario during the holiday season prior to the First World War, you would barely find any reference to Hanukkah (or Chanukah, as it was usually spelled at the time). Even within the province’s Jewish community, it was considered a minor festival celebrated by candle-lighting at home and a synagogue service. Following the war, however, Hanukkah’s profile and press coverage grew in cities with expanding Jewish communities, and became, as the London Free Press observed in 1925, “one of the most important events in the Jewish calendar.”

For many years, articles on Hanukkah focused solely on its historical origins in the eight-day rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 165 BCE during the Maccabean Revolt. Even descriptions found in small-town publications as recently as the late 1960s were nearly identical to what had appeared in city papers during the first decade of the 20th century — which shows just how long it took Hanukkah to filter into the consciousness of communities around the province. Early columns on Jewish community activities in papers such as the Hamilton Times and Toronto Daily Star offered few details about celebrations. As the London Advertiser observed in 1915, Hanukkah was not “widely observed amongst the Jews living in Christian communities, and its observance in London was quite different to what takes place at this time in Palestine and Russia.”

As immigrant Jewish communities from eastern Europe established themselves in Ontario and other parts of North America, they saw Hanukkah as a tradition to hold onto and a defense mechanism against the anti-Semitism they had experienced during Christmas in their homelands. Manufacturers met a growing demand for Hanukkah-specific decorations, games and toys, such as the dreidel. As North American-style Christmas became more secularized, elements such as exchanging gifts and greetings spilled over into Hanukkah celebrations. Major companies such as Coca-Cola promoted their products as Hanukkah-friendly.

Many of the first postwar Hanukkah stories appeared on the social and women’s pages and profiled charitable events. For example, in 1919 the Globe ran a story on a party held at Toronto’s Jewish Orphanage, which was described as “a very delightful event” that spread “the warmth of love and happiness.” Around 40 orphans marched into the party waving Union Jacks and Zionist flags, then presented a program of dances, dialogues, songs, and speeches before lighting that day’s symbolic candle. Three years later, the London Free Press reported that the city’s chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish volunteer women’s organization established earlier that decade, was leading an appeal to send toothbrushes to 3,000 war orphans in Palestine, along with handkerchiefs that would “delight the heart of any youngster.”

It was felt that more gifts and entertainment would make Jewish children feel less left out as they saw gentile children receive Christmas presents. Students who attended religious classes run by Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple were invited to a party at a local theatre in 1922 which, according to the Canadian Jewish Review, promised “an excellent program, consisting of appropriate moving pictures, professional children’s entertainer, ventriloquist, magician, and others.” Girl Guide packs that were predominantly Jewish held Hanukkah parties. During celebrations in Ottawa in 1924, department store owner A.J. Freiman spoke to children about the importance of Hanukkah, and plays from Sunday school students followed, along with free boxes of candy. In time, some rabbis called for gift-giving to be shifted over from Purim, a late-winter celebration that marks the saving of Persian Jews.

While kids enjoyed themselves, parents attended lectures at local synagogues on topics such as “Can We Assimilate with the World and Remain Jews?” and “Is Judaism Worth Struggling For?” By the mid-1920s, speeches given at Holy Blossom were published in other communities with growing Jewish populations. In 1925, the Windsor-based Border Cities Star printed excerpts of Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman’s thoughts on the best gifts to be exchanged between those celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah. “We ask of Christians that they practice their religion toward us,” Isserman noted. “Though persecuted and maligned, we harbour no malice, we bear no grudges, we thirst for no vengeance. We will try to live up to the high ideals of our faith…and we will propagate them, for we know that only when they are lived by all will there be peace on earth and goodwill to men.”

Press coverage of Hanukkah during the 1930s continued to focus on youth activities and charitable events. Concerts became an increasingly important part of celebrations, with performers including cantors, operatic singers, pianists, and youth choirs.

Following the Second World War, there were efforts to both find common ground and highlight the differences between Christmas and Hanukkah. Students in mixed communities, such as those found in sections of downtown Toronto, presented plays celebrating each holiday side by side. In an essay published by the Canadian Jewish Review in 1954, Rabbi Jordan Pearlson of Toronto’s Temple Sinai synagogue provided suggestions to build the spirit of Hanukkah in children. Among his ideas were having them decorate homes with crafts made in a similar manner as school art projects, placing menorahs in prominent window spots to normalize them, and sharing both holidays with friends and neighbours. He felt that parents who introduced fictional characters like “the Chanukah Man” or wrapped presents in red and green instead of blue and white created too much holiday confusion for kids to handle. “We can retain our meaningful and distinct traditions for ourselves and our children,” Pearlson observed. “What is required of us is not the demand of the battlefield but rather the delightful task of sharing the enjoyment of our children directing and guiding them even as we celebrate.

By the 1960s, press coverage in Ontario’s cities depicted Hanukkah as a normal element of the holiday season. Front pages featured photos of the first day of candle lighting. A wider variety of advertisers made Hanukkah-specific greetings. Latke recipes appeared on the food page. And, as the Toronto Star observed in a 1965 editorial, “it’s becoming an ‘in’ thing for one Christian to wish another ‘Happy Hanukkah.’”

Sources: A Kosher Christmas by Joshua Eli Plaut (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012); the December 19, 1925 edition of the Border Cities Star; the December 15, 1922, December 22, 1922, December 14, 1923, and December 17, 1954 editions of Canadian Jewish Review; the December 18, 1919 and December 8, 1923 editions of The Globe; the December 6, 1915 edition of the London Advertiser; the November 23, 1922 and December 16, 1925 editions of the London Free Press; and the December 24, 1965 edition of the Toronto Star.

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