Hanukkah begins at sundown Sunday and I can’t wait to do … nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. We’ll light candles for eight nights. We’ll fry up potato pancakes, called latkes, and top them with applesauce. We’ll spin a four-sided top, called a dreidel, winning and losing piles of pennies and chocolate kisses.
But my kids have grown graciously accustomed to their Hanukkah Scrooge of a mother. They no longer expect gifts, aside from a little gelt, or money.
It’s taken me years to get to a place of simplicity and contentment regarding our lovely but small Jewish holiday that, by chance, falls in the same month as the Big One.
Now that I’m here, I’m not retreating. By doing less and buying less and expecting less, I’m stressing less, which means that I cherish this season more, every aspect of it.
That’s why the tired annual chant of a war on Christmas remains upsetting to me. Don’t believe it. There is no war on Christmas.
There are just people around me, in the hardware store and next door and at work, who could not be more eager to say and do the right thing, who want to know why my holiday has so many spellings and appears all over the December map from year to year.
And there’s me, the Jewish girl whose car radio is set to 24/7 Christmas music from the minute the Thanksgiving dishes have been stored away. Me, who issued a cease-and-desist order to prevent any children under my roof from asking for anything last Monday night during the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
House burning down? I’ll deal with it in 30 minutes.
Me, under a blanket on Christmas Eve, mesmerized by the television Yule log.
Far from diluting my Jewish identity, this openness to the bountiful beauty of sights and sounds bestowed upon us during this early winter month deepens my spiritual sense and my hope for humanity. And the ways things have been going lately, we need heaping helpings of hope, all of us.
As a child, I didn’t understand this. Lines were drawn, and my Jewish parents, God bless them, wanted to make sure “our side” felt whole. So Hanukkah built from night to night until, on Day Eight, the gifts were stereo sets and my Christian friends pleaded with their parents, “Why can’t we have Hanukkah?” and all seemed well with the world.
(Quick history: Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over Syrian-Hellenist oppressors forcing them to assimilate around 168 B.C. It is based on a lunar cycle. The word, which means dedication, derives from Hebrew, so these are the closest transliterations we have.)
In the early years of parenting our own three, we did much the same over-the-top celebrating. But somewhere along the line, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I’m guessing it has a lot to do with my day job, where brave, unsung heroes share with me their intimate stories of struggles that I and my children will hopefully never know: homelessness, hunger, abuse, rejection by one’s own family.
I had to find an authentic way to embrace this season without punishing my very good kids, who know that they’re lucky to have debit cards and guaranteed college educations.
So over the years, we’ve practiced and pushed back and forth, and moved to less and less, then more and more.
Now we attend holiday concerts and drive around in our heated car to see Christmas lights. We fry up latkes with our Jewish and our non-Jewish friends. We build gingerbread houses and give tzedakah (charity) to bell ringers and food shelves.
Now, I long for nothing.