AP Photograph/Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Trump’s plan of holding an in-person Hanukkah reception on the White Home on Dec. 9, regardless of issues over the coronavirus, is getting a lot consideration on social media.
Some requested whether or not anybody can be reckless sufficient to attend, observing that an in-person occasion, amid the COVID-19 surge, may change into one other superspreader occasion. Others puzzled who can be invited, recalling that President Trump, up to now, restricted his invitation checklist to supporters, and why the occasion was being held on that date. The eight-day pageant of Hanukkah, regulated by the Jewish lunar calendar, begins this yr on the evening of Dec. 10.
Ignored amid these questions is one which to me, as a historian of American Jewish life and a scholar of American faith, appears much more fascinating and essential. How did the workplace of the president of the US come to carry an official White Home Hanukkah occasion within the first place?
White Home traditions
For many of American historical past, the one December vacation that gained White Home recognition was Christmas. President John Adams and first girl Abigail Adams, again in 1800, threw the primary White Home Christmas occasion, a modest affair, deliberate with their four-year-old granddaughter in thoughts, and with invites despatched to chose authorities officers and their youngsters.
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge inaugurated the apply of lighting an official White Home Christmas tree. He additionally delivered the primary formal presidential Christmas message. His message assumed, as most Individuals of that point did, that everyone celebrated Christmas.
It displayed, in response to The Washington Submit, “the reverence of a Christian folks giving on the seat of their authorities the expression of their reward for ‘the King of kings’ on the eve of the anniversary of His delivery.” Neither Adams nor Coolidge uttered one phrase about Hanukkah.
Official discover of Hanukkah waited one other half-century – till 1979 – by which era Jews had grow to be rather more seen as members of American society and authorities. Mockingly, the president who first paid consideration to Hanukkah was Jimmy Carter, though he wasn’t the Jewish group’s favourite Democratic candidate. When he ran for reelection in 1980, he obtained lower than 50% of the Jewish vote – lower than any Democrat since 1928.
In 1979, following weeks of seclusion within the White Home after Iranian college students took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran seizing 52 diplomats and residents, President Carter emerged and crossed over to Lafayette Park. He lit the massive Hanukkah candelabrum, dubbed the “Nationwide Menorah,” erected within the park with non-public funds and delivered transient remarks.
AP Photograph/Jose Luis Magana
Seeing that Jews have a good time their very own vacation in December – not Christmas however Hanukkah – he directed his subsequent annual Christmas message solely “to these of our fellow residents who be part of us within the joyous celebration of Christmas.”
Each president since has acknowledged Hanukkah with a particular menorah-lighting ceremony, and restricted his Christmas messages to those that really observe the vacation.
Hanukkah got here to the White Home itself, in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush displayed a menorah there, a candelabrum given to him by the Synagogue Council of America.
However Invoice Clinton was the primary president to truly gentle a menorah within the White Home. In 1993, he invited a dozen schoolchildren to the Oval Workplace for a small ceremony. The occasion made headlines when 6-year-old Ilana Kattan’s ponytail dipped into the flame and a wisp of smoke was seen round her head. Clinton was reported to have gently rubbed her ponytail along with his fingers.
Menorah lightings grew in prominence in the course of the Clinton years. Memorably, in 1998, Clinton joined Israel’s then-President Ezer Weizman in lighting a candle on the primary evening of Hanukkah in Jerusalem.
However no White Home Hanukkah events ever happened beneath Clinton. As an alternative, he included Jewish leaders in a big annual “vacation occasion.”
Annual Hanukkah events
The primary president to host an official White Home Hanukkah occasion, and the primary to truly gentle a menorah within the White Home residence and never simply in its public areas, was George W. Bush, starting in each circumstances in 2001.
Since Bush made some extent of inserting faith, full with child Jesus, into his many annual Christmas events, he sought to underscore via the Hanukkah occasion that, as he defined, the White Home “belongs to folks of all faiths.” Since then Hanukkah has grow to be an official White Home custom.
Hasidic leaders within the distinctive black fits worn by members of their group recurrently appeared at these events. Starting in 2005 the events turned utterly kosher.
AP Photograph/Carolyn Kaster
Barack Obama maintained the custom of the White Home Hanukkah occasion, holding two of them in 2013, and Donald Trump maintained the custom as nicely. Each in 2018 and 2019, he additionally held two Hanukkah events for his pals and Jewish relations – together with his daughter, Ivanka – and invited chosen non-Jewish friends to attend them.
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The truth that this yr, amid COVID-19 issues and a presidential transition, the White Home is planning only one Hanukkah occasion, has pruned the visitor checklist and can maintain the occasion on Dec. 9, earlier than Hanukkah begins, stays noteworthy.
What is really important, nonetheless, is how a lot America has modified since Presidents John Adams and Calvin Coolidge invented America’s White Home Christmas traditions and paid no consideration to Hanukkah in any respect.
Jonathan D. Sarna doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or group that might profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.