“What are you doing for Chanukah this year?”
I kind of hate this question, if only because I never have a good answer. “Lighting some candles and being forced to listen to Adam Sandler again,” doesn’t really have the same ring to it as “bounding down the stairs wearing matching Christmas pajamas and eating cinnamon rolls while we unwrap presents and listen to Dean Martin!” (This is what Hallmark and Instagram have led me to believe Christmas is like. Am I close?)
Here’s the thing: in the grand scheme of Jewish holidays, Chanukah is not important. Christmas is a giant birthday party for the most important person you know, hence the presents, the music, and the parties. Chanukah is a celebration that some oil lasted longer than you thought it might. Think about the last time you thought you were out of a household good, and then found it; did you get so excited you bought everyone presents and slashed prices on Toyotas?
In all seriousness, the story of Chanukah is slightly more significant than a grocery emergency: in the second century, a Greek army arrived in Jerusalem, forcing Jews to abandon their beliefs, taking over their temple, and slaughtering them. But a small group called the Maccabees rose up, defeated the Greek army, and reclaimed their temple. When they tried to light a candelabra, they thought there was only enough oil for one day—but it burned for eight days. Hence, the eight-day long festival of lights.
Sure, it’s a celebration of our people surviving. But that’s what all of our holidays are about. A common saying: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
But because of its proximity to Christmas, Chanukah has kind of been forced to compete. Now there are Chanukah presents, Chanukah decorations, Chanukah overalls. Some Jewish people resent this fact—the battle Chanukah celebrates was a battle against assimilation—while some Jewish people embrace it. There’s no correct way of doing it.
I fall somewhere in the middle. The stuff on the Target Chanukah endcap makes me cringe (did we really need Mensch on a Bench? Really?), but as soon as I saw how excited my daughter got about the lights and decorations, I had three packs of bottle brush trees and a string of lights in my shopping cart.
My childhood Chanukah experience was a menorah plunked onto a piece of tinfoil and a few prayers said between dinner and prime time television. I have no complaints (one night we always played dreidel with lottery scratch-off tickets, which I highly recommend), but it certainly wasn’t festive or jolly or full of cheer—and I always felt like I wasn’t allowed to have that because I was Jewish.
But now that I’m a grown-up (allegedly), I know just because I don’t celebrate Christmas doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy lights, snowflakes, or Mariah Carey, while still respecting that many people hold Christmas sacred. This year, for the first time, we put lights in our house. We hosted a party and played “Winter Wonderland.” Don’t worry — I still feel just as Jewish.
I know we don’t need these things to make memories, but if they make us happy, why not?