Two significant historical events facilitated the growing awareness for Americans that Hanukkah was a major holiday for Jewish people and that it was fast becoming attendant to Christmas festivities. The first was the formal recognition of Hanukkah by the White House that was accompanied by a menorah lighting ceremony. On December 17, 1979, President Jimmy Carter became the first sitting American President to participate in the lighting of a public menorah, located across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Abraham Shemtov attended the presidential lighting ceremony and presented President Carter with a small menorah as a keepsake.
In 1982, the menorah lit in Lafayette Park was publicly referred to as the National Menorah by President Reagan, thereby equating its lighting with the National Christmas tree lighting. The first display of a menorah in the White House is ascribed to President George H.W. Bush in 1989, upon receiving it as gift from Synagogue Council of America. By 1993, the menorah lighting rite had officially moved into the White House when President Bill Clinton hosted a small ceremony for school children in the Oval Office. The first President to hold a White House Hanukkah party at which he actually lit a menorah was George W. Bush in 2001. This tradition has continued to the present.
The second historical factor that contributed to the presence of Hanukkah in the public domain was the campaign waged by Chabad-Lubavitch to place menorahs in as many public venues throughout the United States, from malls to city parks and halls. The drive was initiated by the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the 1970s. In 1980, Rabbi Schneerson issued a directive encouraging menorah lightings in public places and initiated a movement by sending rabbinic emissaries to cities throughout the United States with the express mission of publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah to inspire pride in Jewish onlookers.
At first, public displays of menorahs began appearing in cities with large Jewish populations, such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Media coverage of the menorah lighting ceremonies in these cities often showed the local mayor and prominent government officials helping Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis to light menorahs. The first such lighting, in 1974, occurred in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and involved a small group of Jews holding a small menorah. The following year, in San Francisco, the local Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi, Chaim Drizin, and public radio station KQED program director Zev Putterman, arranged for concert promoter Bill Graham to sponsor the creation of a twenty-two foot high mahogany menorah to be erected in Union Square. The menorah, affectionately called Mama Menorah, was erected next to Macy’s ornate Christmas tree, the largest public tree in the city. Bill Graham also underwrote an attendant festival, now called the Bill Graham Menorah Day Festival, which includes musical performances, arts and crafts, food, and is capped off by the Chabad-Lubavitch sponsored menorah lighting.
Perhaps the largest menorah lighting to take place in this early period was at Dolphins Stadium in Miami in 1987, when Florida Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Tennenhaus lit a menorah in front of 70,000 people. In this same year, Rabbi Schneerson launched a global Hanukkah menorah lighting campaign.
The lighting of public menorahs was not without controversy. Challenges to the constitutionality of the menorahs in the public square paralleled challenges to crèches and other Christological symbols.
Check out Hanukkah lightings all over New York City and throughout America tonight (and throughout Hanukkah). One in particular is at 35th and Park Avenue in Manhattan,where I will be leading the lighting!