Growing up Jewish, two things truly amazed me: One, that I could actually write my entire first, middle and last name with my fingernail in the fuzz of my suede shoes during synagogue. And two, Santa Claus.
Every winter, the lives of my friends would revolve utterly, passionately around Santa Claus. They'd send him lists of what they wanted, visit him at shopping malls, sit on his knee for pictures. Come Christmas morning, they'd reap the rewards of Santa-worship: an enormous mound of gifts. It looked like a good system. Brilliant even. I wanted in on it.
It wasn't that Hanukkah wasn't special. For one thing, it usually came before Christmas, and the present-every-night-for-eight-nights thing made a lot of kids jealous, so that was good. My mom made great latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes), which we slathered with applesauce and sour cream. We'd always get little bags of Hanukkah gelt -- gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins. And I have lots of heartwarming memories of my younger brother and me battling over whose turn it was to light the candles on the menorah.
Most years, Santa brought us something, too -- a toy apiece, or something big to share. But the raw excitement my friends experienced was definitely missing. And my parents always seemed oddly restrained about the whole thing. We were encouraged not to mention it to Grandma.
The truth was that Hanukkah couldn't rival Christmas, and everybody knew it. Not in excitement. Not in showiness. Not in just plain fun. And definitely not in music. For the holiday choral concert at school, we'd sing the haunting, lyrical "Oh, Holy Night" in the same program as "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" -- a song whose melody is not unlike the sound of a car alarm. I knew which number I liked better. Why would anyone else feel different?
I found myself yearning for blond, round-faced relatives whose miniature, upturned noses would grow rosy as we sipped cocoa by the hearth. We'd cuddle under the afghan, awaiting Santa's arrival. In reality, my relatives, who lived in New York, were dark and sharp-featured, with rich brown eyes and wiry hair. They went out for Chinese and a movie on Christmas.
My mom says that it was only during my childhood in the '70s, when commercialism began ascending the ladder of national values, that Hanukkah began to be seen as "The Jewish Christmas." Looking back, I think that must be where the trouble started. Jews were encouraged to "keep up with the Gentiles" by decking our homes with blue and silver tinsel, stringing "Happy Hanukkah" banners across doorways, even trimming a Hanukkah bush. The ultimate effect was to cause both holidays to lose their meaning in the face of marketing madness.
As an adult, I've learned to appreciate each of these celebrations and to understand them as very different. Hanukkah is not "The Jewish Christmas" any more than Christmas is "The Gentile Hanukkah." But there is a key similarity. They are both about the miracles that can be brought about by faith. And that's what really matters.
Hanukkah is a celebration of faith, with both historical and spiritual roots. Here is an extremely condensed version, summarized from "Seasons of Our Joy," by Arthur Waskow:
In ancient times, a small band of Jews (the Maccabees) went to war to protect their religious beliefs, ultimately recapturing Jerusalem in 166 BC. The Jewish temple had been destroyed during battle, and great effort was required to rebuild it. As the Jews rededicated their temple they found that only a tiny amount of oil had been spared destruction in the war, enough to burn the lantern for just one day. But the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.
Waskow writes, "... the single bottle of oil symbolized the last irreducible minimum of spiritual light and creativity within the Jewish people... The ability of that single jar of oil to stay lit for eight days symbolized how with God's help that tiny amount could unfold into an infinite supply of spiritual riches."
I decided to take an informal survey to find out what some Jewish acquaintances of mine do while their Gentile friends and neighbors celebrate Christmas.
Erica Farrell, stay-at-home mom: Farrell is Jewish, and her husband comes from an Irish-Catholic background. The family celebrates Christmas "as a cultural holiday," Farrell says. Their festivities usually include a tree and a holiday dinner with friends.
Joel Vilinsky, high school English teacher, actor: When Vilinsky was a child, his father sold Christmas ornaments for a living. The holiday continues to be part of his experience since his wife, Jeannie, celebrates Christmas. "I get the best of both worlds," he says. "I enjoy it. I have a great time."
Ann and Dick Bendheim, homemaker and insurance consultant: In past years, the Bendheims have volunteered at the MCV Hospital Hospitality House on Christmas, so other workers could enjoy Christmas with their families. Ann says, "This year we're going on a cruise."
Susan Katz, receptionist: Katz converted to Judiasm before she married her husband. On Christmas, the family has "holiday dinner" with Katz's local relatives, and their celebration tends to be more secular than religious.
Richard Smith, rabbi: "We spend the day at the Beth Sholom nursing home, for 'switch day,'" says Smith. The switch he's referring to is when members of the Jewish community volunteer to help at Beth Sholom so that the Christian staff members and volunteers can spend the holiday with family.
Jacqueline Goldberg Jones, stay-at-home-mom, actress: "We do a mixture of things," Jones says. "We don't celebrate Christmas in our home, but we help Christian family members celebrate." Jones helps with "switch day" at Beth Sholom (see above) and plans to involve her children in Christmas Day volunteer work when they get older.
Zelda Boley, writer, speech pathologist: Boley usually has dinner with family or friends. One recent Christmas, she recalls, she and her comrades ate Chinese and then went to the movies. "I just consider it a holiday," she says, "and I enjoy it with Jewish or non-Jewish friends. It's a festive time of year."
Diane Major, independent cruise counselor, network consultant: Major spends Christmas Day the way she did as a child: celebrating Christmas. "My parents believed in teaching me that it wasn't Christ, it was the spirit of the season," she says. So along with lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, her family had a tree and gifts every year, too. She continues this tradition with her own family. "We don't celebrate the birth of Christ," she explains, "but we celebrate the holiday -- and the spirit it's supposed to mean."