Every year one of my Jewish friends will try to explain how lame Chanukah is and how it couldn’t possibly stand up against the awesome power of Christmas. With a junkie’s conviction they tell you how much they love all of it: snow! Reindeer! Stop animation TV specials and the mountain of presents under that glorious tree, with the needles that smell like they’ve been hauled out of some magical forest just yesterday!
From an outsider’s perspective I can tell you I enjoy nothing more than Chanukah. It’s mature, it’s subtle, it’s cool: Chanukah is the key swapping cocktail party that outshines the Christmas kegger.
Ever since I married a Jewish woman ten years ago I’ve been a Chanukah man. I did not convert to Judaism when we got married, mostly because the rabbi who married us admitted that the Ark of the Covenant does not in fact have the ability to melt Nazis. When forced to categorize myself I go with “Rod Carew Jew.” Adam Sandler is wrong: Hall of Fame slugger Rod Carew married a Jewish woman, observed the holidays and raised his children Jewish, but never converted.
I was raised Catholic, and went through most of the big steps: I was an altar boy and was confirmed. After I left the Church in high school, I felt uncomfortable celebrating Christmas. The holiday is too wrapped up in the celebration of li’l baby Jesus, to the point where every symbol is loaded. When everyone else had Rudolph, I was looking at the manger scene in the creche our family set up every year.
It’s not that I went to a very strict, traditional Catholic Church. There was no fire or brimstone. We went to the folk Mass, the priest had a beard and long hair and looked like a dead ringer for the Big Guy himself. Even the Communion was different – instead of those stale white Communion discs they served chunks of fresh whole wheat bread. Add some Cheddar cubes of Christ and an apple slice of Christ to the Body of Christ and you had a solid appetizer.
Even without constant reminders of how sinful we were, Christmas as a religious holiday trumped all the commercial aspects: we were reminded of the Miracle of Jesus’ birth, and that slew of presents we’d get the morning after Midnight Mass had to be complemented by some acts of charity for the less fortunate. I was reminded over and over that I could enjoy Christmas, just not enjoy it too much.
When you go from very serious, Altar Boy who studies the Lives of the Saints to a devout atheist, all that remains is a horror show of materialism. Any religious fanatic/pundit who’s worried about the secular left waging a War Against Christmas is chasing the wrong people: the secular left did not create the Tickle Me Elmo stampedes at the local mall.
This not coming from the Grinch, but the Lorax. Modern Christmas is an environmental travesty: the plastic both in the toys and the packaging rivals the petroleum from the BP oil disaster. You really need go no further than those giant lit up inflatable lawn ornaments that require power not just for their internal lights but for the fan that keeps Frosty fat. In tree-hugging Portland we have the garish Peacock Lane, a street where the real estate covenants and conditions for each house compels them to be tarted up for Christmas, attracting lines of cars from all over and rivals the power bills and vehicular congestion of the Vegas strip.
Even without overdone lights and phthalate-oozing Santas, I’m uncomfortable with the wreaths and trees. You can tell me that these are pagan winter signs, but before we get all cozied up with the pagans remember that these are the people who brought us virgin sacrifice.
At a wreath-making party the other night my host tried to convince me that in her utterly atheist household there was no religious agenda, but I couldn’t quite articulate the worry that behind ever innocent wreath is somebody trying to sell me some frankincense and myrrh, and reminding me to feel bad because that sweet little baby Jesus is going to be crushed by some combination of the Romans, the Jews and Mel Gibson in a mere three months on Good Friday.
My yuletide insanity has calmed over time. I can see that lights and candles are a non-denominational statement against winter’s long dark five o’clock shadow. Candles are my preferred light source and I’ve unsuccessfully argued that we should keep the Jack-o-lanterns lit from Halloween until the Vernal Equinox. If you need to do lights why not just as an accent to your trees and structures rather than a beaded curtain? But please, keep the lights white: we’re not advertising a titty bar.
The eight nights of Chanukah give me a much needed break from my Christmas crazies. Because it’s not anywhere near as important in religious significance as Passover or Yom Kippur, it’s easier for me to enjoy in a secular fashion without any sense that I’m doing something profane. The story behind it involves a battle victory between two groups of people I’ve never heard of and there’s some long-lasting lamp oil which I think they used to make latkes.
In my house Chanukah is a casual affair, a mellow family cocktail party that starts at sundown, and ends when the candles have burned. Celebrating at night it feels a little more mature. Christmas, seriously, who starts a party at seven in the morning? A few nights feature latkes and applesauce, and each evening we say the Hebrew prayers as we light them – what I don’t believe can’t hurt me. Then we hide the presents and the kids play hot and cold until they find them.
Then it’s over: the drama around the present you didn’t get quickly fades because of the possibility of the next night. Some nights the kids get a pile of presents, as there’s no point in getting in the way of two grandmothers spoiling their grandchildren, but we never experience the Christmas afternoon meth crash when every last gift has been opened and the kids wild eyed and pouting in a sea of shredded gift wrap.
The one problem I have is that the dates shift, and I’m caught off guard when the holiday is over by the second week of December. If they start putting out the Chanukah decorations at the store right after Halloween, especially for years when it starts the week after Thanksgiving, the holiday would be perfect.
In the best years Christmas falls right in the middle of Chanukah and passes by unnoticed. It’s lonely when, like this year, Chanukah is barely a memory by the time Christmas arrives, and my family shuffles around wondering what to do with ourselves until we pick from the Holy Trinity of movies, the mountain and Chinese food.
Photo of Burl Ives, who ruined Christmas.