Santa Claus, a folk hero of the Christmas season, is readily available to most American children, Jewish children, however, had no corresponding hero with which to identify. Then came Hanukkah Harry!
Hanukkah Harry was first introduced in a 1989 episode of Saturday Night Live in “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas” as a positive figure who had earned a reputation as a trustworthy Jewish Santa. So well-respected was Harry that when Santa became ill just prior to Christmas and was unable to fulfill his duties, he called upon Harry to take his place. Hanukkah Harry ably substitutes for Santa until the non-Jewish children he visits realize that Harry has distributed practical gifts—slacks and socks (typical presents for Jewish children)—and not the gifts that they had hoped to receive. After their initial disappointment, the children realize that Hanukkah Harry was only trying to help out under difficult circumstances. They ultimately appreciate Hanukkah Harry’s willingness to assist Santa, in the same manner as fellow Americans are thankful to Jews who willingly volunteer to substitute and perform their jobs on Christmas day. As for the Saturday Night Live episode, while Santa may have had the better gifts, Hanukkah Harry had the altruistic motive, teaching that holiday spirit is more appealing than the crass commercialism to which many children, Christian and Jewish, are subjected.
Just when one is left to believe that Hanukkah Harry had reached a modicum of success with his appearance on Saturday Night Live, the rivalry between Santa and Harry reached epic proportion in the minds of imaginative comedians. Some have envisioned Harry winning in a combat between the two giant holiday superstars. Hal L. Singer’s 2002 music release on compact disc “I Saw Hanukkah Harry Beat up Santa” offers one such episode and a motive of jealousy for the fisticuffs that are about to ensue. Harry instigates the rivalry by “haunting Christmas like the ghost of Christmas past.” Santa “bashes in Harry’s Caddy” and “Harry jumps in his Caddy and he was mad as heck,” resulting in his taking “off after Santa to break his jolly neck.”
Without any pretext, Hanukkah Harry gets even with Santa Claus for Santa’s control of the Christmas airwaves. The scene takes place in front of Morrie’s deli, presumably so that Hanukkah Harry will have support and justification for his retribution on Santa. His use of a Cadillac car to inflict harm hearkens to a time when this automobile was considered to be a status symbol among immigrant Jews. The message is that Santa’s hubris will ultimately contribute to his undoing.
These two roles of Hanukkah Harry, supportive and combative, are recorded as entries in the Internet Urban Dictionary, a source of humorous definitions found in the urban environment. The first definition of Hanukkah Harry is that of a “very funny guy that helps Santa Claus and lives in Israel.” His brother, Santa Cohen, helps as does his sister, Yenta Claus. The siblings have a cousin named Schmanta Claus and they all love Hanukkah. The second definition posted in Urban Dictionary for Hanukkah Harry is “the Jewish equivalent of Santa Claus” when “Hanukkah Harry wipes Santa Claus’s ass.”
As portrayed in American Jewish popular culture, Hanukkah Harry illustrates that Hanukkah is just as important as Christmas. Once this parity was achieved through the humor of Jewish artists, satire became the vehicle of choice. In the fantasy world facilitated by the then new YouTube internet medium, a Hanukkah bird drops presents from his high vantage point, along with bird waste. Introduced through YouTube, in 2006, the comedian and rapper Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E) presented a scene centered upon a bird dressed in blue that delivers presents over the course of eight nights from his home in Boca Raton, Florida. Apparently, Hanukkah Harry trained him. The bird’s sole recognizable trait is his “blue and white turd,” although a news helicopter sights the bird sporting a yarmulke. Reminiscent of Big Bird, the beloved television character of Sesame Street fame, this Hanukkah bird is considered cute and responsive to children’s needs. The cuteness is undermined, however, by the bird’s limitations. He does not talk and he cannot be seen.
Eric Schwartz’s message in this rap, as well as in his other YouTube entries (“Chocolate Coins” in 2006 and “Hanukkah Hey Ya” in 2008) is that Jewish children have no reason to envy Santa. They have so many “cool” rituals, games, and gifts that they deserve to be called heeb hoppers. Unlike children who celebrate Christmas, they never have to worry about whether they were naughty or nice nor need they request any presents directly from a Santa while seated on his lap. This Hanukkah bird can neither read a gift wish list nor be seen by children. But the presents for all eight nights continue from an endless and miraculous source of gifts.
Both Hanukkah Harry and the Hanukkah bird now appear in popular cultural celebrations during the month of December. Beginning in 1994, every year on a specified weekend date in December in cities throughout the United States and the world, thousands of young people sporting Santa costumes converge on a central gathering place. The name of the event is Santacon.The focus of Santacon is multi-fold: rooted in a flash mob and featuring both spontaneity and creativity, the participants meet to publically parade, to rove and to barhop, clearly having a good time all the while spreading good, albeit bawdy, cheer and goodwill. A website called SantaCon.info provides information about several of the gathering sites in the Northeastern United States, as well as historical context and the prospect of purchasing cheap Santa suits and other Santa paraphernalia. In New York City alone, thousands of Santas converge from all directions at one (secret) previously -designated place. This street gathering always includes a few people dressed in blue and white robes as Hannukah Harry and as Mrs. Hanukkah Harry. Occasionally, dreidel and menorah costumes appear and even, on rarer occurrences, a person surfaces dressed as a blue and white bird, a clear reference to the Hanukkah bird featured in the Youtube rap of Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E).
This year SantaCon has shared its route in advance. They will meet at 10 a.m. at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Starting at 11:00 a.m., parties will be hosted at Verboten and the Hall. In the middle of the afternoon, the Santa crowd will head to the Lower East Side, near to the Delancey and the DL. Late afternoon will find the Santa crowd in the East Village with events hosted at Solas, Bar 13 and at 230 Fifth, near Madison Park.
For more on our thoughts about SantaCon, see prior blog postings: “Here Comes SantaCon (and AntiCon)! on Decembr 13, 2013, and “You Better Watch Out…!!!! on December 16, 2012.