Reinventing the Holidays: Hanukkah in the US 2020

reinventing hanukkah

We’re pleased to continue our Reinventing the Holidays series, this time covering Hanukkah in the US.

As a refresher, this series centers on a central question for consumers and brands alike: what does the 2020 holiday season hold? With so many risks, and so many parts of our lives transformed by COVID-19, how can we still make this time of year special?

To date, we have looked at Halloween and American Thanksgiving and for this installment, we focus on Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. We’ll be noting wider implications for how the holiday is viewed by those who celebrate, and what role brands and retailers should and could play.

Erica Ruyle, Senior Vice President of Qualitative Insights and myself, Liz Miller, Vice President of Business Development at Maru/Matchbox, teamed up to answer this through a holiday-by-holiday series, aimed at helping to build an understanding of how consumers feel, behave, and think as well as translate consumer expectations into impactful end-market implications. To accomplish this goal, we used Maru/Matchbox’s proprietary Instant Qualitative platform, part of the suite of capabilities available through Maru/HUB. This multi-day discussion board included rich content-sharing and expert moderation as a means of eliciting actionable insights.

From a commercial perspective, Hanukkah is often positioned as the “Jewish Christmas”. But as soon as we started talking to Jewish families who celebrate Hanukkah it became clear that it is a tired and frustrating comparison.

As is now widely known, Hanukkah is actually a pretty minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, and is a religious celebration without wider secular implications. Christmas, which has long been fully adopted by non-Christians, with traditions extending far beyond the religious tradition, is easily the most if not the second most important Christian holiday (some traditions consider Easter to be the most important), so comparing the two from the start becomes inconsistent and confusing.

Looking at Hanukkah on its own, rather than in comparison to other holidays around the same time, a few important factors became clear in how Hanukkah is defined and celebrated by the Jewish community:

  • Hanukkah does not fall at the same time every year. It can overlap with Thanksgiving through the end of December, so aligning it with any one particular holiday does not always make sense.
  • Hanukkah lasts 8 days. It’s not a single occasion, it’s a ritualistic holiday that includes repeated traditions every night for many celebrants.
  • Like many religious holidays, the spectrum of belief in those who celebrate Hanukkah ranges, and directly impacts the extent to which they celebrate and the ways in which they do so.

Respondents described how they feel, behave, and think about the holiday, and some very clear themes emerged.

Hanukkah is a family holiday just as much as it is a religious holiday. According to one respondent, that is because, while many religions center around a physical house of worship, “Judaism is about the home. Our traditions and rituals take place largely in the home and through the family.” Outside decorations are rare because what’s happening inside the home is what’s most important. “We do put a menorah in our window, though, and we stand out on the block as the family that celebrates Hanukkah alongside all the Christmas lights our neighbors have up.”

For more traditional Jewish families, decorations inside the home can be more extensive, but for most families, menorahs are the key element of decor. A few respondents also described using blue lights in their windows or occasionally outside, although they also mentioned that blue lights are no longer necessarily a symbol only for Hanukkah.

Gift giving and family time

Gift giving, especially for children, is an important tradition of Hanukkah, which is perhaps another reason that brands and retailers have pushed to further embrace the holiday.

Most families give gifts to children each night of the holiday, with some families starting with smaller gifts and moving to the biggest gifts on the last night or two. Often gifts from extended family members far and near are included in the nightly gifts. Generally, respondents described that gifts are reserved just for children, and most adults don’t normally receive Hanukkah gifts, at least not across all eight nights.

Family time was lauded as a key element of Hanukkah tradition, with friend get-togethers being much less common. Large family get-togethers are a popular tradition, and a fond memory many adults referred to from their childhood.

Prayers and other traditions

Being a religious holiday, respondents described the importance and the beauty of the Hanukkah celebration’s prayers and songs. One respondent recalled, “Hanukkah has always been a special time for me. I have many fond memories of menorah candle lighting with my parents, siblings, grandparents, and cousins each…we would sing the prayer together [and we had] lots of musical people in my family, so this was always done in 3 part harmony”. Singing, praying, and menorah lighting each night were cited as the most important and special elements of the holiday for most respondents.

Latkes, the traditional Hanukkah food, came up repeatedly from our respondents as well. They emphasized the importance of homemade latkes (one family even held a contest each year!), but other than that, specific foods were not described as particularly crucial holiday elements, as much as the experience of eating together with family was emphasized.

Playing dreidel also came up a few times. With the prominence given to the dreidel in most commercial displays about Hanukkah, those unfamiliar with the holiday might think this game is much more fundamental to the holiday than it seems to be. In truth, it’s a fun game played sometimes, especially by children, at family get-togethers.

COVID-19 and looking forward

Generally, respondents did not describe major changes being made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The gatherings will be smaller, generally just staying home with immediate family rather than extended family, but otherwise, the traditions are expected to remain the same.

Thinking about a longer term, forward-looking view, respondents described a longing for those larger family gatherings, and look forward to a post-pandemic, family-wide celebration without social distancing, which has been a shared theme across every holiday we’ve covered in our Reinventing the Holidays series.

5 Considerations and Recommendations for Brands:

  1. Candles, candles, candles: almost every respondent described challenges around candles. Respondents described feeling consistent frustration about how hard it is to find candles. Real and electric candles are both of interest, and some people shared ideas for candle innovation, such as fast burning candles for busy families who don’t have hours to wait every night while the candles burn down before bed.
  2. Kits are a continued theme: as with our other holiday coverage this year, kits continue to come up as a request for brands and retailers. An all in one Hanukkah kit including candles, cards, gelt, small gifts, wrapping supplies, and specialty food items, would be welcomed for busy families who want to make the holiday preparation easier. Convenience, without the sacrifice of quality, is a prevalent theme in how people want to celebrate holidays.
  3. Limiting commercial influence: while most respondents saw an opportunity for brands and retailers to support Jewish families with convenient options, there was also a prominent tone of frustration towards efforts to commercialize Hanukkah. “I would love to see the focus be less on what we can buy and more on how we can foster community and connection,” one respondent shared. Several others agreed that Hanukkah-related charitable efforts from brands or retailers could go a long way and are actually more in line with the celebration than urging increased consumption. Brands and retailers could consider partnering with religious institutions, food banks, or other community organizations, and invest their own resources into community betterment, possibly by doing a match to customer donations, as one idea.
  4. Thoughtful advertising: advertising in advance of, and during Hanukkah could be improved, including in-store. In-store merchandising of Hanukkah-related items leaves something to be desired, most respondents agreed. One complained that with food displays, many grocers lump all traditional Jewish foods together for their Hanukkah display, but end up including foods that are designated for other holidays and have nothing to do with Hanukkah. Take a more thoughtful approach, respondents asked. Out of the store, consider better campaigns throughout the month of November. Black Friday is too late, many years, to apply to Hanukkah shopping. Offer an additional, separate, or extended sale, highlighting Hanukkah specific items of things like socks, candles, and other small gifts that people are often looking for their Hanukkah gifting.
  5. Balance: Across nearly every respondent’s participation in our Instant Qualitative Forum, there was a tension that arose. Jewish families don’t want Hannukah seen as “just the Jewish Christmas”, but they also often feel overwhelmed and overlooked when all of November and December is consumed by Christmas with “a menorah thrown in the corner for good measure”. Avoiding direct comparisons, while still carving out space to honor the special parts of Hanukkah- generosity, family time, and making and keeping memories- can be a difficult balance, but according to our respondents, is really what they’re looking for.

These studies on reinventing the holidays, which are run primarily through Maru/Matchbox’s Instant Qualitative platform, elicit a more holistic understanding from respondents using rich content sharing including video uploads and engaging moderation. At Maru we use a combination of digital qualitative methodologies, expert moderation and AI-powered analysis tools enabling us to dive into how respondents feel, behave and think about Hanukkah in 2020 and going forward.

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