I get a little Grinchy around this time of the year. I find the Christmas lights to be pretty and I delight in seeing the homes around my neighbourhood decorated with each family’s unique flair, but as Christmas takes over public spaces, as the pull to buy stuff and to want stuff is ramped up to a fevered pitch, and as it becomes impossible to buy toothpaste without the blaring music overhead and the cashier at the exit wishing me a Merry Christmas, I am repeatedly reminded that I live in a dominant Christian culture. And it’s at this time of year that I am struck by the ways that Christmas has changed Chanukah.
In the calendar of the Jewish year, Chanukah is a minor holiday. In the flow of Jewish holidays through seasons, through history and sacred myth, through the particular moral, communal and spiritual qualities each holiday cultivates in us, Chanukah pales in comparison to major festivals like Sukkot and Shavuot. And yet, more Jews celebrate Chanukah than Sukkot, Shavuot, Simchat Torah and Tisha b’Av combined! Don’t misunderstand me – it is beautiful that so many Jews (and non-Jewish partners and friends) celebrate Chanukah. May the light and the grease be abundant! It is, however, valuable to recognize that Chanukah has become big because Christmas is big and that Chanukah has turned into a gift-giving holiday because Christmas is a gift-giving holiday.
In the name of claiming and celebrating the unique teachings and gifts that Judaism offers, I want to point to a few ways that we can engage in Chanukah, not merely as ‘the Jewish Christmas’, but on its own light-filled terms.
1) Public Jewishness – The practice that lies at the centre of Chanukah is lighting the chanukiyah each night in a place that is visible from the street, publicizing the miracle, the light, the rededication of Jewish life. One of the key themes of the story of the Maccabees is standing against assimilation. This is a time for being “out” as Jews. How might you explore being a visible Jew at this time of year? How might you enact Jewish values in the public sphere in the coming month? What is some aspect of Jewish life that you might want to learn about, reclaim, share at a Chanukah party or become involved with that makes your connection with Judaism brighter, deeper and more vibrant?
2) Gift-giving aligned with Jewish values – If you do buy gifts for people in your life, how can your choices of gifts, the amount you spend and the expectations you create be enlivened by Jewish values? How might you explore new ways to think about: ethical labour practices; modesty and moderation (I love the practice of each person only giving one gift and receiving one gift and then getting back to the flickering candles, singing and Jewish-themed charades!); donating to important causes in someone’s honour – what a gift!; deepening our relationships and being together as the focal point of celebration, and being sure to invite folks who might not have others to celebrate with.
3) Connecting with Jewish gift-giving time – While Chanukah is not traditionally a gift-giving holiday, Purim is. It is a time when we give both mishlo’ach manot (gift baskets of food) to friends, family and neighbours and matanot la’evyonim (gifts to those in need). This year, Purim is on March 1st, 2018. Consider making Purim a focused time of Jewish generosity and giving, exploring how it relates to the quite different story of the Megillah and the beginning of spring’s vulnerable newness and bursting joy. How might you want to plan now to set aside money, time, intention and celebration for Purim’s gifting?
Wishing you all a light-filled and Jewishly joyous Chanukah.