Epiphanies can happen in the strangest places.
We had gone to see a movie. I don’t remember which one. It was years ago. My son was young, perhaps six or seven. It was holiday season. A large Christmas tree stood in the lobby of the theater. My son stood at the foot of the tree and looked up at the sparkling lights and decorations. Then he turned around, as if searching for something and asked, “Where is the menorah?” Spotting an electric menorah on a counter, I pointed it out to him. “It’s so small,” was his reply as he took my hand.
We just stood there for a moment, hand in hand, halfway between the tree and the menorah. He looked back and forth from one to the other and then said, “Christmas is beautiful, but Hanukkah is my holiday.” He said those words with a quiet determination, as if situating himself as a proud minority within a dominant culture he could appreciate but need not be envious of.
When I was his age, my response had been very different. I so wanted to be part of the magic Christmas seemed to offer. I came up with a plan. I saved my pennies for weeks before I had enough to purchase a small bag of tinsel, an envelope of hooks, and a box of tiny ornaments, little glass balls of red, blue, and green. I precariously took my mother’s prize jade plant off the kitchen window sill and set it in the living room. It looked like a tree, with its branches and large central stem, so I decorated it accordingly, carefully draping the tinsel and hanging the little ornaments from their hooks. I was so proud of my accomplishment, looking at it this way and that, until my mother walked in. “It’s a Hanukkah bush!” I triumphantly explained as her face fell. I did not fully understand her dismay until my neighbor and playmate, Kris, came in and asked why I had a funny-looking Christmas tree in my living room. “I thought you were Jewish,” she explained. “We are,” I replied. That evening I removed all the decorations and returned the jade plant to the kitchen window sill, longing to have what Kris had: a glorious tree covered with lights and surrounded by piles of presents.
My parents were first-generation Americans. They both grew up in kosher homes. Their mothers lit Shabbat candles every Friday night. However, like most of their generation, they fled what they experienced as the stifling restrictions of an old-country Judaism of rote and rules that offered little by way of meaning or inspiration. My parents felt Jewish, and most of the time that was enough. We lit the Hanukkah candles each year, though I don’t remember singing any songs or even playing the dreidel as a child. My mother baked hamentaschen for Purim. We held two Passover seders and, for eight days, refrained from eating bread or bacon–because they were not pesadik (kosher for Passover). We gave money to Israel. It was not until the end of college that my search for spiritual meaning brought me back to the Judaism hidden from me as a child, a Judaism rich with symbolism, joyful traditions, and a path toward personal and spiritual growth.
My son, of course, knew nothing of my inner struggle. From birth, he knew the joy of welcoming angels to the flicker of Sabbath candles; of his parents’ hands resting on his head in blessing each Friday night. He felt the anticipation of spending weeks planning our family Purim costumes and of relishing the taste of Israeli fruits on Tu B’Shevat. His child’s need for decorating and delight was fulfilled in the thrill of unpacking our boxes of decorations, making new decorations, and finding the perfect place to hang them all in our Sukkah each fall. It was no wonder he could appreciate Christmas without the sense of unease, envy, and guilt I had always felt growing up. In his world, Hanukkah did not need to carry the weight of Christmas comparisons because it was but one of a weekly and monthly parade of particularly Jewish celebrations, each joyful, holy, and special in its own way.
Looking down at my son, a weight lifted from my own heart. I realized that I, too, could appreciate Christmas for all its once-a-year pageantry without the discomfort of feeling left out. I was not about to join the nearest carolers or the local ‘Messiah’ sing-in.
There is a difference between being an appreciative observer and actively participating in the religious rites and rituals of others. However, I could finally enjoy the lights, and even the ubiquitous holiday music and decorations, without the baggage of my youthful yearning, just as I might enjoy any other culture’s ethnic or religious festival, with curiosity and pleasure. Since I experienced this Hanukkah epiphany looking through my son’s eyes, I, too, have been able to see that Christmas is beautiful, and that Hanukkah is my holiday, one of many holy and happy days we share together throughout the year.