Happy Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights

AKA, the Jewish Christmas

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Written by Lindsey Beth Zelvin

It’s always been interesting to be a Jew at Christmastime. I tried to convince myself to believe in Santa when I was eight because I loved Christmas movies so much. I wrote him a letter and everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being Jewish. I love the services for the High Holy Days, the music, the language, the teachings, and the focus on community, family, and making the world a better place. I am proud to be a Jew and spent much of my childhood and teenage years active in my local Jewish community. However, during the holiday season there can be a bit of a disconnect when it seems like the whole world is celebrating Christmas while you’re eating Chinese food and going to the movies.

Jews do have a winter holiday of our own: Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But it’s a bit

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different than Christmas. It moves around the calendar and can be anywhere from late November to late December. There have been times I was visiting my grandmother for Thanksgiving and we did Hanukkah at the same time!

Hanukkah also is not a huge deal in the Jewish faith. It is a holiday, a meaningful and important one, but minor. It doesn’t hold the same rank as the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or Passover. It celebrates Jews triumphing and maintaining our faith in the face of adversity, but it’s not our Christmas. It doesn’t celebrate the birth of a saviour and it doesn’t mark the beginning of our faith. It is another in a long line of stories of perseverance, determination, and survival.

But it’s still a beautiful time of year. We take out the family Hanukkiah, a special Hanukkah menorah with four candles on each side and one in the middle, to represent the eight days the flame of the eternal light burned in the old temple when there was only enough oil left for one. They are beautiful, each one unique and carefully crafted.

Each night, we light a candle, singing the blessings, three on the first night and two on every other. My parents always asked me and my sister to sing louder, they love listening to us sing in Hebrew; neither of them can carry a tune. We turn off all the lights and one of the adults strikes a match. Then we light the candles and sing.

There’s something special about that moment, the four of us standing around the Hanukkiah. My family isn’t particularly religious. We don’t celebrate Shabbat every week or keep kosher. We only go to synagogue on special occasions. We’re pretty lax by most standards. But it’s a big part of our family; of who we are and how we identify ourselves. When you’re Jewish you don’t always have a historical ethnicity or nationality. I refer to my family tree as a cocktail of all the eastern European countries that kicked out the Jews. But you always have this community. Whether you go to temple every week, or only on the High Holy Days, or never, you are still Jewish. Hanukkah reminds me of that.

I won’t be home for Hanukkah this year, which makes me sadder than I thought it would. I’m going to miss standing in the dark with the light of the candles illuminating the faces of my mother, father, and sister. I’m going to miss singing the blessings with my sister as my parents attempt to follow. I am a Jew who loves Christmas unapologetically. But Hanukkah is my winter holiday. I wouldn’t have it any other way.