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.