Chanukah is early this year. Which means lots of pressure to have it all taken care of long before the bigger D-Day for most of America – December 25th. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I need to think about and plan for eight nights of a holiday in my house that is a modest gift-giving time and also try to make it as special as possible so that no one feels like they’ve somehow gotten a bum rap by not being part of family that celebrates with Santa.
We’ve got the HiHos; they’ve got the ho ho hos. Chanukah just can’t compete, and it’s not supposed to. Unlike what most of the non-Jewish (and Jewish) world thinks, Chanukah is not the Jewish alternative to Christmas. It’s really only a minor historical holiday that has taken on great meaning and proportions in this country so that Jewish boys and girls don’t feel forlorn by missing out on tinsel and mistletoe and evergreen trees with shiny ornaments.
As soon as my daughter learned how to talk, she divided the world in two – you were either Jewish or you were Christmas. And who could blame her? A little brass candelabra simply can’t stand up to a 6-foot tall Christmas tree ablaze with lights. And don’t get me started on the Passover versus Easter debate. You go down the aisles in the supermarket at Easter time and it’s all lilac and yellow and pretty eggs and chicks and lambs and chocolate and Peeps. You go down the aisle with the Passover food (if you can even find it) and it’s brown. And more brown. With matzah. Yum.
I have long felt some guilt (or is that gelt?) around the fact that, although I was raised in a house with a Jewish mother, she was a mother with a Christmas complex. I had the tree, the tinsel, the Yule log, and the presents (and a non-Jewish father which made it all kosher … as it were.) We lit a menorah on the side … and got another present.
On the other hand, I have made a conscious choice as an adult to abandon the holidays of my youth and craft a more authentic Jewish life for myself, meaning not only not having a little menorah shrinking in the shade of my Christmas tree, but eschewing Christmas altogether, learning the prayers (in Hebrew) to say over the candles, and creating a Jewish home for my children, one in which they have learned what it means to be part of a proud and deep tradition and history, but one which still gets a little lost in the glow of the American Christmas.
This year, at 13, my daughter finally said that she thinks having Chanukah is actually better than having Christmas, because you get to celebrate and have fun with it for eight nights (and yes, there are presents.) I was grateful for her revelation, but it still doesn’t quell my fear that my kids feel somehow less than their friends around them at this time of year. I am clear in my convictions, but I still have deeply embedded childhood memories of the beauty and excitement of Christmas.
This year, now that my kids are older, I’m making even less of a big deal around Chanukah (that, and the fact that I’ve just been too busy for it to even register.) I’m a little sad that they’re no longer little kids who will be delighted by a spinning dreidel and chocolate gelt. They are kids, like most, who have a long and ambitious list of wants, and are hoping that perhaps some of those desires will get fulfilled at the Chanukah table.
I love gift giving. I love this time of year. I love Chanukah, and I love Christmas. I am clear in my beliefs, and in my convictions. But the overwhelming nature of Christmas in America always leaves me a little unsettled. I enjoy the dark, cold nights being pierced by light. And I love the idea of gift giving, and given friends and family joy and love.
But for this child, raised in a non-faith interfaith home, the December dilemma is one that haunts me still. I can’t quite fully enjoy the season, because I am still so torn about where I really belong.
Several years ago, I was in Israel on December 25th. It was also a Friday night, the Sabbath in Jerusalem, and I attended a beautiful synagogue service with my group. It also happened to be my mother’s yahrzeit – the day on which I was to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in her memory. Christmas was her favorite time of year, and it was also near her birthday. So there was great beauty in calling up her memory in the light of the season but in a place and a space untouched by Christmas.
Spending Christmas night in that synagogue cohered my past and my present in a way that nothing else ever has. It gave me the courage to appreciate what I had, what I’ve lost, and what I have created for myself and my family. This is not something I can replicate year after year, but it’s a memory that gives me clarity.
So happy Chanukah. Merry Christmas. Happy new year. Here’s to mistletoe and latkes, Christmas angels and miracles in oil lamps. Perhaps I’ll never quite get over my Christmas mourning, but I like to think that the lights of the season, however they are lit, shine brightly throughout the month for all of us.
Photo by sean hobson via Flickr