Sunday, December 5, 2010

The true meaning of Hanukkah

Christmas is a big deal. So big its gravitational pull has raised the significance of other religious holidays in its wake. There is no clearer example than Hanukkah. It is a Jewish substitute for Christmas but not in substance but in the trappings. And here I am talking about presents for children. 

Indeed, that is our clue that this is a holiday of pandering; unlike Christmas where everyone you know gives and receives a gift, for Hanukkah, it is just for children; the obvious theory being that Jewish people are worried that they will lose the kids early on unless Hanukkah is given the considerable star power of Christmas. For a parent, there is also the obvious incentive power of the threat value of withdrawing the event should behaviour be bad. That said, there is no Santa keeping tabs on good and bad behavior but innovative Jews can use Yom Kippur to good effect there. 

My parents didn't try to resolve this. When I look back this is surprising but, when my brother and I were very young, they gave us both Hanukkah and Christmas presents. I really have no idea why. But I do remember it and I also remember being quite miffed the year the dates for the two holidays coincided. 

For our children we vowed to avoid it all. No significant Hanukkah presents and certainly no Christmas. They would essentially get nothing. 

Our kids have accepted this and understand the rationale. But that doesn't stop them exploiting their predicament in public. When we visit stores or something else and someone asks them what they are hoping to get this year they put on a resigned face explaining they are Jewish and so will get nothing. That prompts a look in our direction and I guess this is precisely what my parents wanted to avoid. Anyhow from my kids it is all an act. They do fine at other times of the year. 

But we do the candles but not religiously. Many nights we forget. I've explained to the kids that for our family we celebrate only on prime number nights. That turns out to be about right. 

These issues must be challenging for families where one parent grew up with Christmas and the other with Hanukkah. Family pressures will be enough to cause them to double up. Not only that but there are hard issues in maintaining traditions: more so for the non-Jewish parent. 

As an example of this a friend, who is such non-Jewish parent, recounted her first experience trying to maintain Hanukkah while her husband was out of town. She researched what was involved on the Internet and carefully set up the candles for lighting. But Hanukkiahs can be tricky. The candles can be hard to put in especially since one of them is lit and used to light the others. Accidents can happen quite easily if you haven't engaged in some supervised practice. 

So you want to ensure things can be contained. What you don't want to do is to put something that can easily catch fire near the festivities. Certainly putting down a paper towel to catch wax might be regarded as a no go. Of course, this is precisely where she went and herself and her 3 and 2 year old sons were treated to more than the twinkling of a few lights as the entire table was engulfed in flames. A rookies' mistake to be sure. 

It was easily extinguished but it had an impact on the children. Her 3 year old ran off to another room, seemingly in terror, but instead on a mission. He came back appropriately dressed as a fireman; ready to assist in some frantic firefighting. Of course, that experience became a family memory from that night on and for years afterwards as her son insisted on being dressed a fireman prior to the lighting of the candles. He was just being prepared. A laudable trait. That meant, however, that there was no covering up the incident from other adults in the future. There is simply no other way to explain why your child has to engage in visible fire prevention measures on the holidays. 

When you think about there is an important sense in which this family has captured the true meaning of Hanukkah; namely, that you should have appropriate respect when burning stuff. The whole holiday comes from the miracle that oil burned for 8 nights rather than an expected one (although let's face it that this so called miracle is so lame that no one really believes it or could care less whether it is true or not). In this household, everyone respects the power of flammable materials. It is as fundamental a message as an child is going to receive from a holiday.

[Update: for those doubting that Hanukkah is trumped up, see there economic evidence.]