New Traditions Meet Old: My First Hanukkah and the Story Behind “Silent Night”

If you were to walk into our apartment today, you would see an amalgam of holiday decorations. Hanukkah candles, a mini Christmas tree, stockings hung by the chimney with care and tons of festive cookies and chocolate.

Out of my past 26 Decembers, this year has been one of my favorites. There is just something so special about living in New York this time of year. Whether it’s Christmas trees sold on the street corner, the first big snowstorm or hearing holiday tunes played in every store, it’s nearly impossible to not get into the holiday spirit.

This year, I celebrated my first Hanukkah with Monica and Farrah. Although they told me presents for eight nights was reserved for children, I wanted to make it special. So, I bought them little gifts each night that they opened after they lit the candles. In addition to being introduced to the Jewish tradition of lighting candles and listening as Farrah read a prayer, I helped out with the Sephardic Music Festival where I witnessed Ladino music for the first time. Though, I couldn’t always understand the words, the song’s message was often translated in English. Mostly songs about love and loss, I quickly learned just how universal music is. Whether you understand what is being said or not, good music always translates.

One of the bands I was introduced to during the Sephardic Music Festival was Soulfarm. Described by one friend as a “Jewish jam band,” though I didn’t understand some of the songs as they were sung in Hebrew, once again, talent translates. Captivating the audience with their energy and “soul,” the band encouraged all to dance and sing along throughout their set and many did.

A song about living in the moment, “All We Got” struck a chord as frontman Noah Solomon Chase told concertgoers, “It’s all about singing to the heavens above. Please join us.” Pounding on the drum as he interacted with the crowd, Chase impressed as the band displayed a solid mix of Mediterranean flavor and impressive musical interludes. (You can get a feel for their music from the live performance video above of “Take Your Shoes Off”.)

If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know music is a major inspiration in my life and I’m always interested in discovering new artists and stories behind the music. Every Christmas Eve, my family and I attend mass at our church in town. After the gospel reading, our priest recited the homily where he told us the story behind the song “Silent Night.” I never realized the song was written by a priest, but Father Owen went on to explain the history to us.

Turns out, the song was written in Austria by priest Father Joseph Mohr. Mohr had been stressed the month leading up to Christmas trying to raise enough money to get the church organ fixed just in time for Christmas. A few nights before Christmas, he was asked to visit a family to bless their newborn child. On his mile or so walk back to church, it was a crisp, quiet night and the words to the infamous Christmas carol came to him.

“Silent night/Holy night/All is calm/All is bright.”

As the snow falls heavily tonight in Brooklyn and I’m alone in the apartment writing this post, I can’t help but listen to “Silent Night” and find it miraculous that in a time of desperation, like Mohr hoping to repair his church organ just in time to celebrate Christ’s birth, that this beautiful song came to him. I’m blessed this year in that I was able to learn the old Jewish traditions of Hanukkah, (though new to me) while celebrating my own Christmas traditions with my family.

What are your holiday traditions? Have they changed at all throughout the years?