In much of the Western world, Santa “brings” presents to children on Christmas. What about Jewish kids? No such fanciful legend—parents give gifts during Hanukkah. Enough was enough, thought the writers of Saturday Night Live in the ‘80s.
Hanukkah Harry first appeared on SNL in 1989. In one of the episode’s sketches, Santa Claus (Phil Hartman) gets the flu on Christmas Eve. With nowhere else to turn, he calls Hanukkah Harry at his workshop on the slopes of Mount Sinai to fill in for him. Harry, played by Jon Lovitz, agrees and begins delivering presents in a cart pulled by his three donkeys, Moische, Herschel, and Schlomo.
Unlike the more gregarious Santa, Harry is more practical and down to earth. In the sketch, he’s seen wearing a black overcoat, an Orthodox-style beard, and a blue and white hat. His gifts are also much more sensible, as is his catchphrase: “Oy stop, you’re embarrassing me!” He’s also more forgiving than Santa Claus and brings gifts to both good and naughty kids…which include socks and pants. Having helped “save Christmas,” Hanukkah Harry returned in a later SNL episode in which he got to help out the Easter Bunny.
Even though the legend of Hanukkah Harry began as an SNL sketch, writer Jonathan Safran Foer also further expanded on the legend in a 2005 New York Times article about Hanukkah. According to him, Harry now really (just go with it) visits Jewish households on each of the eight nights of the holiday and now uses a Volvo pulled by a team of lawyers instead of donkeys. He spends the off-season in Florida.
Since his debut on SNL, he’s inspired costumes, children’s books and the novelty song “I Saw Hanukkah Harry Beat Up Santa.” As The AV Club’s Sean O’ Neal noted in 2014, “Twenty-five years after the sketch first aired, Harry has become a genuine—albeit tongue-in-cheek—part of Jewish folklore, even among people who weren’t even born in 1989, and who have no idea of the actual story behind him.”