The rabbis told us Hanukkah was a minor holiday and should not compete with Christmas just because they came at the same time of the year. It was hard for a seven-year-old to look at the shiny new sleds, the brand spanking white skates, and the glittery decorations on Christmas morning to the shouts of “whatja get, whatja get????” and not wonder why she got the boring holiday.
As a kid I yearned for Christmas. I didn’t let it compete because red and green and silver tinsel would always win. Hanukkah had a dreydl that you spun and bet and lost or won pennies and gold foil coins filled with stale white-at-the-edges milk chocolate. I loved Christmas carols. In high school choir I remember holding the “Oh” in “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” longer than anyone else.
Meanwhile, back at my Judaism, I loved Passover because I could picture my people running from Pharaoh and not having time to let the bread rise, a logical explanation for matzoh and I loved the fact that we put bitter herbs on top of the sweet charosis to remind us we can’t be completely content if anyone else is enslaved, and I loved Yom Kippur because there was an actual ritual where we threw our “sins” into the water and that we had to literally call or go in person and ask anyone we had wronged during the year for forgiveness. And I loved learning Hebrew and I loved the soulful music and I loved the velvet seats in my synagogue. But Hanukkah? The rabbis were right. There was nothing about it that could compare to Christmas.
And then something happened that changed everything. When my son Dan was sick and basically bedridden, we had a crew of caregivers who were as diverse as a row of delegates from the United Nations. Each had a different talent, each had a different approach to Dan, and each worked their individual magic to help keep him alive.
I grabbed onto every holiday I could find to include everyone and we would gather in Dan’s room and sing the song of the celebration of that day and eat the appropriate food that went with it, and I watched as we became a little community of ragtag healers.
At Hanukkah I brought my Menorah down to Dan’s and all the makings for potato latkes. I lit the first candle and each night at sundown whoever was there would surround his bed while my husband (reluctantly, since he hates organized religion) and Dan and I would chant the prayers. On the third night I looked around and even though everyone was there, their faces were blank and I knew they were just doing what they thought they should do: show up. I came home and I googled (yes even with a decent Jewish education I still needed Wikepedia to straighten out my facts) and on the fourth night, with notes in hand, I told the story of Antiochus and how Jews weren’t allowed to practice their religion and the desecretion of the temple and how Judas Macabee and his army fought and how the olive oil which was supposed to last only one night lasted eight…, but when I got to the part where pigs were brought in and slaughtered at the altar I found myself crying. I thought about the Muslims humiliated at Abu Ghraib, I thought about the Gypsies and the Catholics in World War II, I thought about the Turks and the Armenians and all the ethnic cleansing that still goes on and on and I just stood there unable to speak.
To recover and move on and make everyone laugh I was about to go into my litany of my poor seven-year-old deprived self at Christmas when I realized how old and irrelevant my complaints were. Dan, who seemed to get wiser as he got sicker, caught the awkward silence, looked around at all our gentile friends, and said the great thing about Hanukkah is instead of one day of gifts we get eight.
Out of the mouths of babes, especially the mouths of your grown children, I heard the perspective I had always needed.
So now the rabbis can’t tell me Hanukkah is a minor holiday. Because for me these days, it’s become major.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is a commentator for NPR, the author of Writing From the Heart, and the founder of The Chilmark Writing Workshop.