Hanukah: Just What is That Holiday?

An explanation of and reflection on Hanukah.

The first thing to know about Hanukah is that it is a fun little holiday.

Hallmark and Evite seem to think that every Jewish holiday is like Yom Kippur, solemn and serious. Just try to find a Hanukah invitation that expresses the cheerful absurdity of celebrating a miracle by lighting candles in a Curious George menorah (candle holder) and eating oily food like latkes (potato pancakes)  and jelly donuts. Other non-somber practices include spinning a dreidl (4-sided top) to win gelt (chocolate coins).

Yes, the story of Hanukah has a serious message. We celebrate the miracle that a small bit of oil lasted for eight days, as well as the larger miracle that a small band of guerilla fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, defeated the Syrian army. And the true miracle is that the Jewish people have survived for thousands of years, outlasting many mighty empires, some of which tried to annihilate us.

Hanukah, like many Jewish holidays, follows the quintessential Jewish holiday structure: they tried to destroy us; we survived; let's eat!

So fun, yes. But also "little." Traditionally, Hanukah has not been an important Jewish holiday. Passover is the big family holiday and Yom Kippur is the most important religious holiday. Hanukah is just a nice family celebration for the dark winter months. It is only because Hanukah occurs near another winter holiday (perhaps you have heard of it? It's a holiday we'll call Xmas.) that Hanukah has been given new life.

Take the giving of gifts, for example. For many centuries, the only gift-giving on Hanukah was from parents and grandparents to children. Frequently these gifts were simply dreidls and Hanukah gelt. It wasn't about lavish presents for all your aunts, cousins, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone you knew. But over time, Hanukah has gotten caught in the gravitational pull of Xmas.

Expectations of Jewish children have risen as they see all the gift-giving around them. So over time that aspect of Hanukah has increased. Many parents now give gifts on each of the eight nights. (And recognize, perhaps unlike our own mothers and fathers, that socks and underwear are ordinary necessities, not special "gifts.")

The pull of Xmas is strong, and each Jewish person has to develop their own strategy in response. Some resist the pull, asserting their Jewishness by rejecting everything from holiday lights to candy canes. Others embrace it, turning Hanukah into Xmas-lite with "Hanukah bushes" that look remarkably like Xmas trees. My parents chose not to deal with it at all, taking us on family vacations to the desert or woods where we could ignore the whole thing.

Now, as a parent, I try to take a less defensive and more positive stance. My celebration of Hanukah is shaped by what I enjoy, not what that other holiday is or isn't about. Let's start with lights. Many Jews see them as "Xmas lights." But Hanukah is actually called "The Festival of Lights." In Israel it is celebrated with torchlight parades. Light is an intrinsic part of the holiday. So to me, blue and white lights are perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Hanukah. We also display a Hanukah flag and put a big electric menorah in the window, adding a bulb for each night of the holiday.

Here in Alameda we are blessed with wonderful neighbors, although not many who celebrate Hanukah. After living here for two years or so, we decided to have a Hanukah party but we didn't really know any other Jews. So we invited our neighbors whose kids were about the same age as ours. We served latkes with applesauce and sour cream, gave out dreidls and gelt, and each child got to light a menorah (which is pretty exciting for a three year old!).

The next year, we assumed that our non-Jewish friends would have plenty of other holiday plans and would barely remember our Hanukah celebration. But starting around Thanksgiving, friends started asking when our Hanukah party would be. So we decided to have another one, and invited more friends. By this time we had even made some Jewish friends too.

Our modest Hanukah party has grown over the past 10 years. We've had more people than you would think our house can comfortably hold, and each child gets to light a menorah. Do you have any idea how much heat is put out by 15 – 20 menorahs with 9 candles each?

A close friend of our older daughter, who has only celebrated Hanukah at our house, once told her mom that Hanukah was her favorite holiday. And her little sister recently told me that she is "partly Jewish" because she celebrates Hanukah with us.

So I am no longer defensive about Hanukah at all. No, it can't really compete with Xmas, but it doesn't have to. It is just a fun little holiday to enjoy during these dark winter nights. 

Frances Montell grew up in Berkeley and attended California public schools from elementary through graduate school. Now a sociologist by profession, she was a sociologist even before she knew what that word meant: she is keenly interested in people and in learning about how social life is organized. Her own social life revolves around her wonderful husband, Charley Weiland, and their two delightful daughters, Helen and Lily. 

Bucksnort December 07, 2012 at 03:45 AM
I read your article to enlighten myself to the holiday of Hanukah but came away with something I certainly didn't expect. Frankly, I find your repeated use of "Xmas" very insulting to me as a Christian and disrespectful to our faith. You can't find it in yourself to type the word Christ? I realize the term "Xmas" is used far too often in a memo context, but I've never seen it used to this degree in a formally written article.
Shea Moss December 07, 2012 at 08:03 PM
I am a Catholic married to a Jewish man. We celebrate everything. I love Hannuka and the lighting of the candles. i love the Hannuka song. It means 'home' to me. I love Christmas. I would not degrade Hannuka by shortening its name. Please show a little respect from one good person to another. Please don't call Christmas Xmas.
Frances Montell December 10, 2012 at 06:51 PM
I am sorry that I offended you with my use of "Xmas." I had no idea that Christians would find that insulting. I didn't mean to "degrade" the holiday with that term. Because "Christ" literally means "Lord", many non-Christians are uncomfortable using the word "Christ" and "Christmas". Often Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. must use words that contradict our beliefs (for example if we participate in choirs or other singing groups, have to say oaths or public readings.) Many of us have gotten used to avoiding these words when we can. I assumed "Xmas" was harmless shorthand and a way for non-Christians to avoid saying words we don't believe. I am sorry that my use of the term offended you.


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