December 18, 2011

The Festival of Lights

The Christmas shopping season started as early as August in some stores I frequent-- I recall snapping a photo on my phone of an entire aisle of Christmas decor at the local Hobby Lobby, lamenting the creeping of the shopping frenzy even earlier into the year.  Black Friday came, and the yearly "tradition" of crazed deal seekers engaged in wonton mob mentality resulted in subsequent headlines of pepper sprayed crowds, injuries during stampedes, robberies, theft and more.  Even after, the heavy traffic and long lines bring out the worst in folks and tempers are short, and manners forgotten--all set to a tune of constant pop remakes of assorted Christmas songs at play in most establishments.  A few months of this really can make a Jewish girl cringe.  I sympathize with those Christians who call for a return to spirituality during the season, hoping to pull their principal holiday from the extreme commercialism with which it has become associated.

My DIY wintery Chanukah tablescape--slate sheets
taken from the river, upcycled baby food jars painted 
with glue and rolled in epsom salt "snow" to make tea light 
holders, painted popsicle stick Star of David candleholder 
base, sprigs of pine boughs lightly "frosted" with white
spray paint, and cinnamon scented pine cones all set 
atop a white sheet of butcher block craft paper.  
Both my husband and I grew up in households that were generically "Christian" in the sense they espoused Judeo-Christian ethics and nominally celebrated standard Christian holidays, albeit in a secular fashion.  "Christmas" meant digging the artificial tree out of the crawlspace, pulling down musty-smelling boxes of decorations, getting into more than one argument associated with the decorating process, frigid cold fingers and noses spent attaching the once-tangled multi-colored strands of lights to the awnings and large outdoor trees and shopping for, wrapping up, and (finally!) opening presents.  It entailed no formal church services nor at-home discussions of anything biblical in nature.  

The irony of the celebration of holy days completely devoid of any spiritual significance whatsoever was not lost on me.  After much exploration and research, I ended up seeking something more spiritually rewarding which could also mesh with my philosophical beliefs, and converted to Judaism at the tail end of my undergraduate studies (alas, that is a story meant for another post).  With this transition came new holy days and with them, the opportunity to develop my own traditions. 

As with many young families, about the time children arrive into the mix, the sense that holidays should be celebrated "for real" seems emergent.  If we were lazy as single adults about getting into a festive spirit, the presence of children inspires us to create wonder and excitement around our holidays, as well as to reflect on how we should best model the spirituality of our chosen beliefs.  My husband is concerned that Jewish holidays just aren't as "cool" as Christian festivities when it comes to big decorations, cartoon movies, the Santa lore, the gift-giving bonanza, and the like.  He worries it will be a buzzkill for her when she is in school and her little classmates are giddy about writing to Santa, working on their wish lists for months in advance, Christmas cookies and parties.  What he's describing is missing out on the secular "Christmas" festivities.  My opinion is that such is a blessing--not to have your special days corrupted by massive consumerism and derailed from their intended meanings. But I get what he means: how do you get your children excited about such holidays without all the associated, if off-message, content?

Our Menorah in the warm glow of some tea 
lights on the tablescape. 
I don't have the answer to that question, and as we grow and mature as a family, our concept of our holiday traditions will undoubtedly grow too.  Chanukah is not a major holiday in the Jewish faith.  It's a celebration of a miracle that happened long ago when a feisty family of Maccabees defied the odds, beat the Greeks, and rededicated a defiled temple.  Families spend a nice dinner with some traditional fare, like the ubiquitous latke,  the menorah is lit at sundown, stories told, blessings recited, and the kids get a little present each night as they play a few rounds of dreidel.  It's low-key and a time to spend with family and good company.  

There is not the enormous pressure to buy stuff for everyone in the family, friends, co-workers, and everyone else from the newspaper carrier to the baby sitter. This is a tremendous relief in this economic environment, but it also prevents us from having to attach a respective commercial value on our friends and family as to how much we should be spending on them.  We'd love to bestow the best gifts to our loved ones, but as many are just barely making ends meet, it's an unrealistic and unattainable goal foisted upon us by retailers and social expectations, and it's simply unnecessary.  I'd rather show my friends how much we care by making some tasty treats or crafting a one-of-a-kind token of my appreciation, and I'd never want them to feel bad about not being able to return the favor. 

Our Chanukah Bush at night
Right now we have co-opted the tree, which I call a Chanukah Bush after a childhood book entitled There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein, about a Jewish girl having the same longings for the festivities and decorations of her friends.  I don't feel particularly bad about this since the Christians stole the idea (and many others now associated with Christmas) from the pagan tradition of celebrating yule in this fashion.  So we have a white tree with blue lights and silver and blue ornaments (blue and white are the colors of Israel), and in preparation for an all-are-welcome Christmahannukah get-together we're hosting, I've attempted to make our home look more festive with some shiny dangling things here and there.

Ultimately, the "point" of Chanukah that I wish my daughters to understand: that people are more important than stuff, the awe of miracles, the warmth of gently flickering candlelight, the buzz of laughter and conversation of friends and family. It is inconsequential if having a lighted tree isn't "Jewish" enough, or not having the equivalent of Santa and his pile of presents isn't as "fun" as Christmas.  

Whatever your holiday of choice this season--tell your family you love them, let your friends know how happy you are they're in your life, make your childrens' eyes grow wide with wonder, tell the story of your holiday with a sparkle in your eye.  Be kind to people who take your orders, and check you out at stores. Smile more, curse less. Yes, give gifts, but remember it's about so much more.  

Learn more about Chanukah here at

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