Rediscovering Hanukkah

How I learned to love Hanukkah by celebrating Christmas

My family has a problem with presents. They make us nervous. Because of some inexplicable guilt or money-related anxiety, receiving gifts makes us feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Ask a Parker what they want for any gift-related holiday and we draw a blank, we have no idea. The holiday season is especially difficult as all of us have to know what we want all at once. To add another layer of problems: my mother doesn’t like to shop in stores that are crowded or drive in parking lots that are full. When we were little, she used to ask my sister and me what we wanted for Hanukkah in September and then would buy it and hide it until December. When you’re six, you don’t know in September what you’re going to want when December rolls around. Four months is a giant percentage of your life at that age! This was a kid nightmare.

While the Parker family gift problem has always been an issue at Hanukkah, the holiday really began to fade for me years ago. When I was in third grade, my Israeli Hebrew School Teacher, Mrs. Rubenstein, told us that Hanukkah was a minor holiday. Her kids, she told us, didn’t even get Hanukkah presents. Most Israelis, in fact, did not receive gifts on Hanukkah. We were aghast. No presents on Hanukkah? What was that all about? It sounded insane. She told us that American children only got presents on Hanukkah because of Christmas. Even though the idea of presents made my eight-year-old blood pressure rise a little, I still didn’t believe her. Hanukkah was something we started talking about in September. It was certainly not insignificant.

Christmas Mimic?

As I got older though, Mrs. Rubenstein’s story about Hanukkah being a minor holiday began to make more sense. Why should Jews try to mimic Christian holiday traditions? We have traditions of our own.

So at the end of the fall semester of college, everyone else would rush home for Christmas break and I would stay around the dorm, working a few extra days at my job to make money for the next semester’s books. Hanukkah was little more than a menorah in a box that I rarely even lit. It barely existed at all. Last year, someone asked me what my family’s holiday traditions were and I was speechless. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess we watch movies on Christmas day when we’re all off from work.”

My boyfriend suggested that we go visit my parents for Hanukkah. I laughed because Hanukkah isn’t a holiday that you go home for. You go home for Rosh Hashanah. You go home for Passover. You don’t even call your mom on Hanukkah.

It came as a bit of a shock this year that my boyfriend Matt, who is a Christmas-celebrator, suggested that we go visit my parents for Hanukkah. I laughed because Hanukkah isn’t a holiday that you go home for. You go home for Rosh Hashanah. You go home for Passover. You don’t even call your mom on Hanukkah. You just send her something that she won’t want or need from Amazon. But Matt loves this time of year. He generally spends it with his father, putting up a massive display of holiday lights that is carefully choreographed in advance. He cheers when holiday music comes on the radio. He even likes “Feliz Navidad,” which lost its appeal for me around the same time that that chihuahua started speaking Spanish. And at the end of it all, his family gets together, exchanges gifts that nobody feels guilty about, eats delicious food and generally enjoys each other’s company. Spending the holiday season with them last year made the season fun for me for the first time, probably, ever.

Where Love is Scarce

Matt had a point: going home for Hanukkah did make sense. Hanukkah’s religious significance is minor but it’s much more than just an excuse to exchange gifts.

The story behind the holiday is that a small band of Jews called the Maccabees defeated the Greeks and re-took the temple in Jerusalem, but when they got there, they found that the eternal flame had only enough oil to burn for one day, but it would take eight days to get the oil needed. Then, the miracle of Hanukkah happened. The holy oil burned for eight days allowing time to get the replacement oil. It’s a good story, a story about miracles, about bravery, about faith. Hanukkah is a holiday about miracles in the face of scarcity. It’s about a family coming together to overcome adversity.

In a world where love is scarce, you should be with the people you love. My boyfriend’s enthusiasm for Christmas helped me see that—despite what Mrs. Rubenstein might think—Hanukkah is a big deal. A holiday that reminds us about giving and sharing with our families and others is important. A celebration that forces us to ponder miracles and to try and see them in our own lives, is significant. Of course as Jews we have traditions of our own…and being with family, giving of ourselves and the role of God’s miraculous intervention in our history are certainly among them.

Amidst lives filled with rushing around and the desire for immediate gratification, it’s nice to have a time of year where you slow down and reflect, a time where you visit your family. Even if the only gift you can bring is to tell them that you love them, it’s more than miracle enough. So even though presents make my family nervous, this year, everyone’s getting one. And Matt and I are going home for Hanukkah.