HAPPY HANUKKAH! ReadTheSpirit welcomes author Debra Darvick, writing about her family’s holiday reflections through the years …
“Are we giving each other presents?” I asked my husband the other night. An unthinkable question, I suppose, were we Christian. But we’re not.
Hanukkah is not “the Jewish Christmas.” It doesn’t have the religious significance Christmas does. Hanukkah commemorates a long and furious battle fought by a small band of Jewish brothers who triumphed over their Greek oppressors and those Jews who had already capitulated their heritage. Judah Maccabee and his minions fought to maintain Jewish tradition, study and religious practice. In fact the word Hanukkah means dedication, in recognition of the purification and re-dedication of the Holy Temple in the wake of the Maccabee’s triumph.
“When you’re Jewish, everyday is Christmas,” my mother sometimes told me when I was young. I still see her hand waving in dismissal. In that one sentence she managed to neutralize the seductive power of decorated trees and presents galore and let me know that I had something better—the potential of round-the-calendar gifts.
I grew up in Atlanta in the ‘60’s. Not many Jews in our neighborhood. Or in my school. I loved visiting my friends’ houses but I never pined for a tree of my own. Well, not too strongly. We were Jewish and being Jewish meant no tree. We lit the menorah, had my mom’s delicious latkes and that was that. One year I received a present each of Hanukkah’s eight nights, but that was the exception, not the rule.
When we became parents, Toys R Us was at its NASDAQ apex. All those aisles filled with games! And Barbies! Legos! Power Rangers! We indulged in the present hooplah, sent out lists to loving and generous relatives. Some years there was more than a gift a night. We lit the menorah every evening and made latkes by the dozens. Nothing compares to the wattage power of Christmas but while the kids were young, mountains of presents were fun.
As our kids grew older, however, the present side of the holiday seemed kind of beside the point. We celebrated with our friends—ate great food, sang Hanukkah songs, lit our menorahs and put them in the window to share the candlelight with passers-by.
Unconsciously I had imbibed my mother’s “When you’re Jewish every day is Christmas” credo. If our children needed sweaters—they got them. If something extravagant was in order, we indulged. Little just-because treats every now and then became a way of life.
They received modest presents, but their real Hanukkah gift was yearlong. We gave them what the Maccabees fought so long ago to preserve—their Jewish heritage. Not by design at the outset but in response to a good-hearted yet woefully misguided gesture by a kindergarten teacher.
One December afternoon my son got off the school bus. Strung around his neck, bouncing against his chest as he made his way down the steps was a bright yellow star. It was decorated with glitter, not “Jude” in Germanic script, but the effect was the same. My Jewish child was getting off the school bus with a yellow star on his winter coat. I reasoned this was his teacher’s way of including the lone Jewish kid or two in the class but I also recognized the long line of culture clashes that lay before us.
By sending our children to a Jewish day school we side stepped the entire issue. We celebrated all the Jewish holidays. Who can long for Christmas when they are dressing up for Purim? When there is Passover to plan for and yes, Hanukkah to anticipate? OK, Yom Kippur is somber but Rosh Hashana precedes it and Sukkot and Simchat Torah follow.
Along the way I realized that Sukkot is a Jewish answer to Christmas decorating. Each year we built (and still build) a sukkah, a temporary outdoor shelter open to the sky. Its roof is strewn with pine branches through which we glimpse the full moon and stars. We string twinkly lights, the more the merrier. We decorate ours with strings of berries (OK, bought from Michaels) and gourds and corn stalks, holiday cards and pictures.
Then there is Friday night—a festive ritual meal celebrated with friends or sometimes just the four of us. This past summer my daughter invited a friend over for Shabbat dinner. Both remarked that for every week in memory, Friday night was a party night. Identity isn’t wrapped up in presents but in presence of mind.
Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth. It is indeed a holy night.
Our children grew to understand this over the years and understood why celebrating Christmas had no place in our Jewish home. By making Hanukkah one of many holidays celebrated throughout the year, we gave our children the gift that was theirs already. All we had to do was unwrap it.
(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)