A few years ago, my daughter and I were watching the local news. Thanksgiving had just passed and the station had taken a viewer’s poll to ask how people felt about Christmas decorations going up before Thanksgiving. I will never forget one viewer’s response because it brought us a good chuckle. The viewer had suggested that Thanksgiving be changed to September to allow everyone more time to shop. It seemed like forgive me, such a stupid comment. What stopped this woman from beginning her Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving? Was there something about this Christmas ritual that we didn’t understand? Or had she lost the true meaning of Christmas… and Thanksgiving for that matter?
Hanukkah begins next Tuesday, December 4. Some may wonder why it bounces around the calendar from one year to the next. Actually, it doesn’t. It begins on the same date every year on the Hebrew calendar - the 25th night in the month of Kislev. The Hebrew calendar is based on the moon, unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the sun. Therefore, new moons dictate the beginning of new months and those days are always different when matched to our Gregorian calendar.
So, I need to finish my holiday shopping by Tuesday - hence the reason for a lack of postings this week. Family duty calls. Family traditions and the promise of 8 nice days of celebration, including a holiday party on Sunday, have sent my typing fingers into a frenzied state way beyond the keyboard and froze my blogging brain. Instead, I have been shopping, cleaning my house, sending gifts off to relatives, wrapping presents and thinking about ways to make this Hanukkah memorable and special for my family.
When my kids were young, their questions were relentless about why we don’t have a Christmas tree, and why Santa doesn’t visit our home, and why we don’t decorate our house with lights or put candles in the windows --- like “everybody else”. Our quaint New England town is so beautiful this time of year. As you drive down our street every house really does have candles in the windows and white lights wrapped painstakingly around trees and bushes. Our house is the only one that doesn’t and I needed to help them understand that we’re “not like everyone else”, at least during the month of December.
December is my annual reminder that I am a minority in this country. Synagogues have even coined a phrase for this phenomenon: the “December dilemma”. Rabbis run workshops to help parents deal with kids’ questions and their desire to celebrate Christmas. No matter where I go in search of Hanukkah wrapping paper, candles for the menorah or dare I ask some decorations, I am always relegated to a small corner of the store with a few token decorations, some wrapping paper (if I am lucky) and paper goods that usually are leftover rejects from the year before. Sometimes I feel like people are staring at me, even feeling sorry for such uninspiring selections when the whole rest of the store boasts aisles of festive Christmas goodies. If they do, they shouldn’t. I like it this way. But it’s taken me a while to get here.
While growing up, my family never made a huge deal about Hanukkah. We usually lit the menorah and we got some presents. But the big stuff, the good stuff was saved for Christmas. Yes, my Jewish parents celebrated Christmas. And as a kid, I loved it. But after I grew up I started thinking more about my own identity and what Judaism meant to me, and Christmas just didn’t fit into the picture.
I realize that Hanukkah is a very minor holiday and some Jews will argue that it should remain that way. All the hype about Christmas, catapults Hanukkah to the head of the pack of other more important Jewish holidays. Be that as it may, the reality is that Christmas is a really fun holiday for kids, and when you are on the outside, peering through the snow covered glass and seeing those chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming to town, it’s tough being a Jewish kid this time of year. I believe that creating traditions around Hanukkah is fine. Making the holiday fun and festive and special helps kids realize that although they may be different, it is an opportunity to use this distinction to create something special.
Therein has been my challenge over the past 20 years - to help my kids feel proud of being Jewish in December. From the issue of Santa - I never told my kids he is just pretend, out of respect for their friends (believe me, it would have been so much easier if I did), which meant endless explanations as to why Santa doesn’t come to our house -- “no, it’s not because you have been bad”! Christmas trees as religious symbols -- they are called “Christmas trees, for a reason!” Christmas concerts in schools, classroom Christmas parties, stores decked out with Christmas decorations etc. My kids were bombarded.
So, it became my project. I educated teachers and went into my kids’ classrooms and cooked potato latkes and taught everyone how to play dreidel. We listened to Hanukkah music. As a family we read lots of Hanukkah stories (I have a huge collection of picture books that I collected over the years). I pull boxes down from the attic too! We’ve collected decorations over the years, have our own traditions around the eight nights and even paint and decorate a “Hanukkah box” every year to hold all our gifts. I realized that the envy doesn’t come from wanting to celebrate Christmas; it comes from wanting to celebrate something.
Families need traditions and rather than wallowing in the Christmas hype, I would much rather enjoy the season for what it is because it is part of the fabric of our community. After all, we are a nation of many cultures and it’s exactly that diversity that enriches all of our lives. I am confident that my kids don’t have any Christmas angst. I have taught them to take it all in and enjoy the Christmas splendor with Jewish eyes and then freely share their holiday with other’s. We celebrate Hanukkah with all it’s brilliance, the beauty of lighting the menorah (there is nothing more magnificent than our family standing together before all of our 6 glowing menorahs on the 8th night), celebrating with family and friends, exchanging gifts, preparing favorite holiday foods, reflecting on the meaning of the holiday and listening to beautiful traditional music.
So when most of you are running frantic in a couple of weeks, I will be recovering from my eight days of celebration with my feet up, enjoying the craziness around me, and probably posting a lot more in my blog.
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