What’s חנוכה really about?
I used to love Chanukkah. I grew up in one of those typical 1980s homes where the holiday truly was a worthy competitor to Christmas in the category of gratuitous accumulation of presents. My parents were generous. My aunts and uncles were generous. My grandparents were generous. What kid wouldn’t love that? The toys that defined my childhood all arrived during one Chanukkah or another. The 2XL Robot, the Atari 2600 game console, the Apple II+ computer and the Kenner Millennium Falcon are all firmly connected to Hanukkah in my memory (along with explaining why I didn’t date much until college). In truth, there was probably only one “big” present like that each year, along with a succession of pajamas, NY football Giants t-shirts and the occassional LP or cassette (Thriller, Born in the USA, Scarecrow, Seven and the Ragged Tiger). I think I vaguely remember being told that we got gifts on Chanukkah because when the Maccabees were hiding out in caves, they put children spinning tops (aka dreydels) at the entrances to throw their pursuers off the scent. You know, Human Shields. It seemed a natural enough progression to me from dreydels, to gelt to a new Walkman™.
In my isolated world of suburban New Jersey, where everyone I knew was either Jewish or Catholic, it seemed to me like Chanukkah and Christmas weren’t competitors. They were equals. This was how it had always been. Right?
Turns-out, not so much.
It didn’t help that my Jewish education was shallow enough that I never picked up on the fact that while Christmas celebrates the birth of Christianity’s messiah, Chanukkah was religiously-speaking, a second-tier Jewish holiday recalling a rare moment of military victory and a remarkably energy-efficient olive-oil burning lamp.
And then I went to a small college in Iowa and Christmas hit me between the eyes. I also got a deeper understanding of Judaism and for the first time met Jews who didn’t care to compete with Christmas. They simply opted out. It had never occurred to me that was an option. I embraced it with militant zeal, after which followed many years of active animosity towards Christmas, and Chanukkahs where I would neither accept nor give gifts. It was during this period that I struggled with the different meanings of Chanukkah. Was it celebrating the unlikely victory of a plucky group of Jewish guerilla warriors who defeated a large empire and rededicated their holiest site? Was it a civil war between traditionalist Jews and Hellenist assimilators that conveniently included a “miracle of the oil” to distract us from memories of an ugly internecine war? Was it just another pagan holiday of light celebrating the winter solistice that we had adapted to our own purposes? In the end, I kind of soured on the whole thing as it became clearer to me that whatever the original meaning of Chanukkah had been, it was far from the consumerist orgy it now was party to.
I’ve moderated a little bit. In part because I have kids of my own now, and well, they have generous grandparents, aunts and uncles who like to give them things for Chanukkah that I’m too cheap to buy them myself. I may not approve of consumerist orgies, but I’m also not going to pretend that they don’t feel good. Plus, I’ve almost got myself convinced that a Wii can be justified as a virtuous purchase. At this point, giving and receiving gifts in the winter is how we all get to feel American–and I’ll just let that speak for itself.
So what exactly is Chanukkah about? What do I tell my kids? We try to make it fun without it getting excessive. We make it a time the family gathers together to perform a particularly pleasant ritual. We sing and eat latkes, jelly doughnuts and other foods fried in oil. We try and make lasting Jewish memories that will outlive whatever gift they are getting. Without getting too far from the original story of the holiday, I think it is a time for children to play, to receive gifts, to hear stories of heroes, to wonder about miracles, to light the Chanukkiah and marvel at the light it throws off. They’ll learn soon enough that playtime ends, that gifts don’t equal happiness, that heroes are fallibile, miracles rare and that the candles go out all too soon.