Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas


We are Hanukkah People, and if I learned one thing, it’s that this charming but minor festival should not, in any way, ever, no-way-no-how, compete with Christmas.

I understood this well when I was growing up in Israel. My parents were not religious, and I often felt out-of-the-loop during major holidays. No special prayers at our home, no synagogue to go to and greet others all donning festive clothes, no respectful abstinences from the hustle-bustle of ordinary days, such as is done by religious Jews. A part of me accepted my parents’ definition of not being defined by ancestral tradition, and a part of me yearned for those traditions.

But during Hanukkah we were part of the crowd. It is more a historic commemoration, not so much a religious holiday, and my parents’ anti-religious sentiments did not interfere with my wish to be part of my people. My mother fried latkes and my friends came over to pass the cold evenings spinning a four sided top in a game of chance. We got eight days of vacation from school, and older neighbors shoved coins called Hanukkah Gelt into our pockets, to do with the money as we wished. Hanukkah was light, and fun, and I never felt like an outsider looking in, as I did during the high holidays or Passover.

This continued after I came to live in the United States. The signs and sounds of Christmas I saw all around were beautiful, exotic, (to me) - and had nothing to do with Hanukkah. I could not relate to the rumors that some of my people had something they called a Hanukkah Bush or that they gave presents to their relatives’ kids every night for eight nights, to outdo the ‘other’ holiday. What folly.

This lasted until I became a mother, and found myself worrying that my kids were deprived of Christmas, no doubt an echo of my own childhood sense of being an outsider at the holidays. During my kids’ early years something strange happened to my Hanukkahs: first, decorations with glitter and glitz began to mysteriously take over our living room. Then came the presents, eight for each night, and the coins too, for Hanukkah Gelt was transformed to Hanukkah guilt. Our intimate evenings with a few friends, frying latkes and singing songs, became super parties with hot-mulled wine thrown in, and too many people to have a chance to say ‘hello’ to.

And then I had an epiphany: my kids didn’t get Christmas, and I was depriving them of Hanukkah.

The last few years have been warm and quiet. The smell of frying latkes is still there, and we light a Hanukkah menorah every night for eight nights. We go for a walk on Christmas Eve looking at the beautiful light displays of our neighbors. But our own house is decidedly not glitzy. The competition has been called off.


Happy Hanukkah to my people, first candle tonight. And Merry Christmas to all who rejoice on that beautiful holiday, only a few days away.

16 comments:

  1. I grew up as a halfsie - Mom Jewish, Dad not - Episcopal church. We celebrated Christmas. But when my grandparents house was being disbursed, I asked for the menorah. I like the idea of a quiet, meaningful celebration. Nice post.

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  2. Happy Hanukkah to you, Mirka! This is such a lovely, heartfelt post. Thanks for sharing it. There's something so magical about the traditions we choose to embrace.

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  3. Lovely post, Mirka. The traditions and customs make the holiday (holy day) more meaningful. If I weren't Catholic, I'd be Jewish. Salvation history begins with the Jews.

    A very Happy Hannukah to you and yours.
    Vijaya

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  4. Our kids have grown up as others (non-Japanese in Japan and now non-Scots in Scotland). In some ways, it's been tough on them, but in others, it has made them stronger, and more tolerant of other people who don't fit into any particular mold.

    Christmas has become such a commercial greedfest that the only way I can cope is by being a bit of a grinch. I will cook for ANYbody, I will buy or make gifts that are meaningful -- but I really hate what the day has become, with children getting so many gifts they hardly appreciate them.

    A quiet, reflective Hannukah with tasty latkes sounds loads better than a glitzy, superficial Christmas. One of the best Christmases I remember, however, was with some of my Christian fundamentalist cousins whose Jews-for-Jesus friends came over with blintzes. It was over-the-top Christian, but without all the BUY-BUY-BUY nonsense I have come to dread.

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  5. Thanks for sharing your Hanukkah tradition with us. I really like the photo! Happy Hanukkah to you and your family!

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  6. Happy Hanukkah, Mirka!
    I still fondly remember celebrating at your house when we lived in Berkeley. I'm going to assume that was before the parties got too big...

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  7. Happy Hanukkah, Mirka and family! I still fondly remember celebrating in your house when we lived in Berkeley. I'm going to assume that was before the parties got too big...

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  8. Definitely ^ ‘before,’:) although the house was already getting too glittery then… Nice to have you drop by here, Rachelle.

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  9. I really, really liked hearing about how you came to terms with a way to celebrate Hanukkah in a manner that is 'right' and meaningful for you and your family. It sounds beautiful, and I love the photo. Thanks again for sharing your traditions with us. I'm wishing all of you a lovely Hanukkah. Hugs, Ev

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  10. What a lovely post. The way you describe Hanukkah is the way Christmas was in my family when I was growing up. Instead of presents and glitz, the focus was just on spending time together as a family. I'm glad that my family and my husband's family have both started going back to this simple type of celebration.

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  11. I couldn't agree with you more! My daugher had a big argument with her 8th grade history teacher who wouldn't believe her that Hanukkah was a minor holiday. I even photocopied the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry and sent it to her, to no avail! We had a very hard time explaining this to our friends when we lived in Houston.

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  12. Lovely post, Mirka. I enjoyed the glimpse of your family traditions and how they've evolved.

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  13. We celebrate both holidays in my house; thus my children are growing up exposed to two sets of faiths that overlap in so many ways, yet are quite different. I appreciate your post -- not only is it lovely, but you are authentic about the beauty of both traditions.

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  14. I'm a little late to the party, but I loved this story, Mirka. Thank you for sharing it.

    Ellen

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  15. Happy hanukkah! lovely family pic.;)

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