It’s the most wonderful time of the year! So they say, and it was a Jew who wrote that (The Best Christmas Songs Were Actually Written By Jews).
I’ve always loved Christmas and after moving to California, this is my favorite time of the year. The days are short yet crisp, the air is amazing after a nice SoCal rain and the plants and hills bloom, and of course, the decor. Oh, the decor. I love Christmas.
This year I quickly realized I’d embarked on this Jew-ney exactly 6 months after last Christmas. Why?
Well as noted in modern Christmas songs written by Jews, it’s a remarkable time of year. I was thinking about this a year ago at this time. We all gather, it’s (sometimes) cold out, so we cozy up by the fire, and play music that is so super familiar from when I was a kid. We then give thanks and give each other gifts.
And all of this, in my family as in most that I know, is secular AF.
It’s highly fitting – slash – challenging that my first Hanukkah and last Christmas as a non-Jew overlapped this year so perfectly. They usually don’t. It forced me into a lot of challenging situations, a tension and anxiety I felt building as this month flew by.
I stayed in town a day or two later than usual to spend the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday the 22nd, with Ikar Tribe at Rabbi Kasher’s beautiful home. That was so great and welcoming! We did intros and shared if we were new there. I was, and shared it was my first Hanukkah. There were “wow”s and lots of questions later and people randomly gave me their phone numbers to connect. “Wow” on both sides, what a welcome!
It was BYOM and I didn’t yet have a menorah, so I watched and recorded for posterity.
Then I schlepped home to north county San Diego on a rainy day and entered a weird space where I was the only Jew-ish person (not “Jewish” but practicing). It all of a sudden fell 100% on me to educate my family, light the menorah, a sing the blessing while not fully knowing what the heck I was doing or talking about.
So that second night I unwrapped my first present from my folks, a Hanukkah starter kit. This is totally for kids and it’s great. My first menorah, 44 candles, a rainbow of dreidels, not-super-clear instructions, and even some gelt (gold chocolate coins). Fun! We lit, incorrectly I might add, since the instructions and at least one video say “light left to right”. They mean the candles start on the right side of the menorah but you then light the new one on the left for that night. So it’s R to L placing, and L to R lighting. With Hebrew. And solo singing in Hebrew in front of others who don’t know what the heck I’m doing or what the words mean. With no other Jews (“Jew-ish“) and only Youtube to guide me.
It me (language and all):
Second night was about showing my folks what was up. This third night was wrangling my niece who was wondering why she had to be involved. I explained it was nice for her to support and a bit about the story of the Jews and why support was important. It’s what the holiday is about; I’m lighting the menorah and placing it near the window for her to see, and you don’t do it alone.
This night, Christmas eve, my older niece and my sister were here for it, too, and super great about it.
My nephew had asked to join the next night so on the fourth night, Christmas night, he lit the menorah with me… after lots of arguing with me that we needed to light 9 candles. Ha. He has oppositional defiance, so he woulda made a great Maccabee.
We’ve got this. It was just mom and dad tonight. Homemade kippot (thanks, mom). The chicken onesies are unrelated to the celebration, just super comfy.
I’m taking my folks to shabbat at their nearby synagogue tonight. More to come on that!
Let It Go
On the solstice I watched Frozen for the first time in years. It’s a weird flick and has some low-budget animation early on. It also features the talents of one Adele Dazeem (cough) Idina Menzel, who Adam Sandler reminds us is Jewish. Fitting, then, that Elsa finds herself alone in a sudden winter, after a big party, while having to hide who she is. NO, really! This is 100% about being Jewish at Christmas, to me at least. She’ll always be the first Jewish Disney princess to me…
Shine the Light
…which is why it’s so great later in Frozen when she thaws things and comes out, embracing who she is. It literally lights up the nation, changes her, and strengthens her relationships. It’s a Jewish happy ending of sorts.
On Hanukkah we light the menorah and place it in view, shining our light into the world and showing who we are. I do so hoping that it will change the world.
Hanukkah is literally about not assimilating, a much longer story and an important history. I still don’t know what that means for me. My family will continue to celebrate a pagan/commercial/European/non-Christian winter holiday that I love; it goes back in my family to Germany and England on both sides, where most of our modern Christmas customs originate. My mother has a longer story about why Christmas is so important to her.
Hanukkah is also about winning religious liberty; Judaism couldn’t exist without the Maccabean revolt that re-won the temple. Studying Torah and practicing Judaism as we know it had been banned. Christ wouldn’t have practiced Judaism, either, 200 years later, without the revolt. Would there even be Christianity without Hanukkah?
I’m really looking forward to Hanukkah next year being before Christmas (December 10-18). The separation will be easier and I’ll know more, but comfort aside: the new challenge will be a stand-alone family Christmas. What does that look like for me? Does it matter or change?
We shall see.
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- I Heart Maccabees at Words on the Word
- The Revolt of the Maccabees: The True Story of Hanukkah
- When did Jews start lighting candles on Hanukkah?