Last night was the first night of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. It celebrates a miracle in the story of the Maccabees, a band of brothers who fought against oppressors of the Jews during one of many such periods in Jewish history (in this case, the second century BC). The bad guys had sacked the Temple in Jerusalem, the most holy place of the Jews. The desecration included letting the sacred flame, which was supposed to burn continuously, go out. The good guys cleaned the place up and relit the lamp, but there was only enough oil for it to burn for one night. By a miracle, the flame lasted for eight nights, until help and supplies arrived.
That is why we celebrate Chanukah by lighting the special candelabra called the menorah, starting with one candle on the first night and adding another candle each night until the whole menorah glows on the eighth night. The menorah actually has nine branches, not eight. The extra candle, the shammash (which in my family was always pronounced shammas), is used to light the others. My goyische husband has to be reminded every year that the candles must never be extinguished, but burn down and go out on their own. This requires some planning to avoid going out (or if possible, leaving the room) while the candles are burning. Celebrate, yes; burn the house down, no.
Like reading Hebrew, lighting the menorah is done backwards, from right to left. (Or do I only think that’s backwards because I’m lefthanded?) We sing a special blessing over the candles, and if children are present, they get Chanukah gelt (gold). When I was a kid, the gelt was actual money. Then the fashion changed, maybe to avoid raising overly mercenary children, and the usual payoff was chocolates shaped like coins and wrapped in gold foil. In these health-conscious times, the pendulum is swinging the other way. The last couple of years, I’ve been getting gold (or at least gold-colored) one dollar coins at the bank to give my granddaughters.
Some Jewish American families give Chanukah presents. If the children had their way, they’d get one present on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third…for a total of 36 presents. It doesn’t happen, but the kids keep trying. It’s traditional to eat foods made with oil, particularly latkes. You’ve gotta love a religion that makes eating potato pancakes a pious observance.
In fact, Chanukah is a minor holiday, rather than a high holy day. It’s only become such a big event in America because it was so hard on Jewish children to see their non-Jewish friends enjoying all the excitement and abundance of Christmas. When I was growing up, we celebrated Christmas with stockings and presents and a tabletop tree (an artificial silver one, popular during the Fifties) hung with ornaments.
As we got older, we became more aware of Chanukah. But when we were little, my mother didn’t think we’d find it exciting enough, compared to Christmas. In later years, my mom denied all this—a perfect example of selective amnesia.
In our ecumenical family today, we celebrate both holidays. I love trimming the tree and celebrating peace and love. But I love lighting the Chanukah candles too, and celebrating freedom, hope, and my Jewish heritage.