I don't know how old I was when I realized that none of my favorite TV families -- the Cartwrights on Bonanza, the Cleavers on Leave It to Beaver, or the Petries on The Dick Van Dyke Show -- celebrated Chanukah. Every show, it seemed, (even Dragnet!) had a special Christmas episode. Where were the Chanukah episodes?
These are more inclusive times, but the pickings are slim for Jewish families looking for the Chanukah-equivalent of A Charlie Brown Christmas to enjoy as an annual holiday-viewing tradition. The following episodes are hit and miss in their celebration of the Festival of Lights, but each manages, however fleetingly, to capture the joy and meaning of the holiday. All are available on home video or to view or stream online.
Saturday Night Live: "The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas" (1989)
More fondly remembered than actually funny, this sketch finds Jon Lovitz's Hanukkah Harry stepping in for an ailing Santa Claus. Harry is more lax on the whole naughty or nice thing. When told a boy is on the naughty list for speaking when not spoken to, he protests, "What, is that a crime? He's a kid! Kids talk. I'll bring him a little something."
Saturday Night Live: "The Chanukah Song" (1994)
Dec. 3, 1994; a date that will live in musical infamy. That's when Adam Sandler debuted "The Chanukah Song," dedicated to the "nice little Jewish kids who don't get to hear any Chanukah songs" during the winter holiday season. Funnier the first time around (there have been several updates since), this dubiously-rhymed anthem is a suspect list of celebrities who are Jewish (Rod Carew?).
A Rugrats Chanukah (1996)
"A Maccababy's gotta do what a Maccababy's gotta do." In what is perhaps TV's first Chanukah episode, the babies learn (and imagine themselves in) the story of Chanukah. Meanwhile, it would take a miracle for Grandpa Boris and his lifelong rival Shlomo to play nice for the Chanukah pageant, but that's what Chanukah is all about, Charlie Brown.
A Taste of Chanukah (1999)
You haven't heard the story of Chanukah until you've heard it told and sung by Theodore Bikel in this multicultural PBS concert special. Chanukah standards are performed in a variety of styles from klezmer and gospel to R&B. Humorist Chasia Segal serves up a recipe for the perfect latke.
Friends: "The One with the Holiday Armadillo" (2000)
"There were these people called the Maccabees." That's about as far as Ross ever gets as he tries to get his Santa-obsessed son Ben excited about Chanukah. This was a squandered opportunity to represent Chanukah in what was then TV's No. 1 sitcom. Even a candle-lighting ceremony that concludes this episode is undermined with a mood-killing joke about "the Easter Bunny's funeral."
Even Stevens: Heck of a Hanukkah (2000)
Grounded for Chanukah after accidentally destroying all of the Chanukah presents, Louis Stevens thinks his family would have been better off had he never been born. Enter great-great-great-great grandmother Bubbe Rose to give him the It's a Wonderful Life treatment. Chanukah may be a minor holiday, but this episode totally gets the delirium with which Jewish kids await the first night.
The OC: "The Best Chrismukkah Ever" (2003)
What Halloween was for Roseanne and Thanksgiving was to Friends, so Chrismukkah was to the The O.C. In the interfaith Cohen household, Christmas + Chanukah equals "the greatest super-holiday known to mankind…drawing on the best that Christianity and Judaism have to offer." Grandpa Albert over on The Goldbergs has his own thoughts on that subject.
The Goldbergs: "A Christmas Story" (2015)
Matriarch Beverly goes overboard trying to top the Christmas-celebrating family across the street by creating "Super Chanukah," complete with a Chanukah bush. Grandpa Albert resents her trying to take the holiday up a notch. "Chanukah only has one notch," he insists. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the inevitable lesson that "being good at family wasn't about making the old holiday sizzle and pop; it was about remembering why the holiday was important in the first place."
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes for Vanity Fair.com, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets.