It’s Hanukkahtime and it’s (almost) Christmastime!
My parents were Jewish but they weren’t religious. Instead of turning away from holiday celebrations, they embraced all of them. I grew up lighting Hanukkah candles, decorating the Christmas tree, and singing Hanukkah songs and Christmas carols to the accompaniment of my mother on the piano. (Do any of you remember The Fireside Folksong book? I still have our family’s copy—tattered though it is.)
Some of our relatives disapproved of my parents’ holiday traditions and refused to come to our house in December because of our Christmas tree. Some of the parents of my Christian friends disapproved too. But my friends—Jewish and Christian alike—thought I was the coolest kid on the block because I got to celebrate both holidays.
Hanukkah lasts for eight days and nights. Using a candelabra called a menorah, one candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second night, and so on, progressing to eight on the last night. Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom. It commemorates the 165 B.C. victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish army, over the Syrians, and the recapture of the holy temple in Jerusalem. When the Maccabees decided to rededicate the temple, they could only find enough temple oil to burn for one night. Miraculously, it burned for eight days and nights. When I was a child, I loved putting the proper number of candles into the menorah each morning in preparation for lighting them at sundown.
I remember how special it was when one of the eight nights of Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas—we’d light our Hanukkah candles as our Christmas tree glowed (and bubbled) nearby. This gave me double duty at sundown: get those Hanukkah candles lit and get those bubble lights bubbling!
Interestingly, until the 19th Century, Hanukkah was a relatively minor Jewish holiday in the United States—perhaps the equivalent of Flag Day. But because of all the holiday activity surrounding Christmas, Jewish families began to celebrate Hanukkah so their children wouldn’t feel left out this time of year. Now it’s so well-known that it’s depicted in movies and in contemporary songs—my favorite being Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” (“Put on your yarmulke, here comes Hanukkah!”)
When I got married, it was easy for me to carry on the Christmas tradition because my husband’s family celebrated Christmas in grand style. We’d go to candlelight services on Christmas Eve at the Unitarian Church in San Francisco and, from this, I learned more about the true meaning of Christmas. My father-in-law became my Santa Claus because he embodied the spirit of generosity and good cheer.
Last year, our bronze menorah broke. How does one go about getting a menorah these days? Why, at menorah.com of course.
I always think about my parents this time of year. I’m certain they’d have gradually added other holidays into the mix for us to celebrate—from Kwanza to the Winter Solstice—maybe even Festivus!
Happy Holidays to my online friends all over the world.
© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.