Inevitably, around this time of year, there are grocery stores that build Hanukkah displays in their "ethnic foods" aisle — stocked to the brim with matzoh, which is not actually a Hanukkah food. The unleavened bread is eaten at Passover, months later.
Three new holiday movies from Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel that feature Hanukkah feel like those displays. The stores think they mean well. They're trying to be inclusive. But actually they're too lazy to Google what Hanukkah is about.
And so it is with the protagonists of Hallmark's "Double Holiday" and "Holiday Date," and Lifetime's "Mistletoe & Menorahs," all of which involve plans for a Christmas celebration that go off the rails when a character is revealed to be Jewish, which, yikes. None of the Christian characters (who wear red) knows anything about Hanukkah, and none of the Jewish characters (who wear blue) knows anything about Christmas. High jinks ensue.
Those tropes are at their most benevolent in "Double Holiday," the story of frenemy colleagues, cocky Chris (yes, his name is like "Christmas") and insecure Rebecca, two senior managers who are competing for a promotion that depends, inexplicably, on their ability to plan a lavish Christmas party together. (Their New York property development company apparently has no junior administrative staff.) They learn to work together — and that means learning about each other's traditions. Chris invites himself to several nights of Rebecca's family's Hanukkah celebrations, making latkes and struggling with Hebrew pronunciations. Rebecca learns how to put ornaments on a Christmas tree. Nothing terribly offensive happens, and that counts as a miracle.
No such blessings for "Holiday Date," in which New York fashion designer Brooke enlists an actor, Joel, to pose as her boyfriend — standard behavior in the Hallmark universe — rather than endure another holiday without bringing someone home to her family. But he's Jewish and doesn't understand the family's Christmas traditions (cause for suspicion!), and is otherwise caricatured as a cultural outsider — an insidious trope about Jews that is played here for laughs.
"I hope you like ham!" Brooke's mom says to Joel. Oof.
"Mistletoe & Menorahs," meanwhile, tells the story of a toymaker named Christy (yes, her name is also like "Christmas") who lives in Chicago, the metropolitan area that is tied with D.C. for the third-largest Jewish population in America, but has somehow never encountered a single Jewish person in her life. Now she needs to impress a Jewish client at his party and must become a "Hanukkah expert," as she calls it, in only a few days.
So she enrolls in rabbinical school. Just kidding — she gets a mutual friend to hook her up with the only Jewish man in Chicago, Jonathan Silver, who has a problem of his own: He needs impress his shiksa girlfriend's parents with a Christmas tree that he does not know how to buy or decorate (they sell them at Whole Foods, bro).
"Isn't Hanukkah random?" the girlfriend asks Christy, when Jonathan explains that latkes are made of fried potatoes eaten with sour cream, two widely enjoyed ingredients. "That doesn't even sound like a real word," Christy's boyfriend says to her, when she re-creates the dish at home. Christy actually does Google "Hanukkah" with her friend, but they do not bother to read any of the results. Which is weird because that's the most important part of Googling something.
The holiday-movie industrial complex isn't known for its open-mindedness. Hallmark introduced black romantic leads to its repertoire only last year. There are a paltry few movies that focus on Hanukkah, most notably, "Eight Crazy Nights," an animated film named after a lyric from Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song"; "The Hebrew Hammer," a Blaxploitation parody; and "Full-Court Miracle," a Disney film that draws parallels between the Maccabees and a basketball team. There's even a previous Hallmark movie, 2012's "Hitched for the Holidays," that has nearly the same fake-love-interest-is-surprisingly-Jewish plot as "Holiday Date."
But these three recent additions are not Hanukkah movies. They are Christmas movies with Hanukkah as a plot device. Troublingly, the Jewish holiday is often an obstacle preventing the characters from celebrating Christmas to the fullest. Or else it's framed as a quirky cousin of the secular celebration of Christmas: special foods, candles, presents, family togetherness — just with a different color scheme! There's always a recitation of the story of Hanukkah, a tortured analogy: "Let's say this cellphone has 10 percent battery left," Rebecca explains to Chris, "and it lasts for eight days without me having to charge it."
Besides, the writers don't even get Christmas right: The gentiles in "Mistletoe & Menorahs" convince Jonathan that everyone loves fruitcake, which is a) a lie, and b) a pretty mean prank to play on the only Jew in Chicago, who already doesn't know about Whole Foods or Google.
Next year, if Hallmark or Lifetime want to make a realistic Hanukkah movie that takes place on Christmas, they should tell the tale of a Jewish family that goes out to a Chinese restaurant and then a movie. But don't be surprised if they have the Rebeccas and Jonathans of the world teach the Chrises and Christys how to make matzoh brei instead.