Lights: They are popping up in strings on trees and doorposts all around us. It’s about that time of year when, despite Thanksgiving having not yet fattened our bellies, people take it upon themselves to light up their neighborhoods and places of business. The holidays are upon us, but the lights might mean different things to different people. I imagine to some Jews, the strings of lights and well-lit trees bring twinges of pain, cringing and frustration. To Chanukah bush or not to Chanukah bush? What about … G-d forbid … the Christmas tree? After all, most people celebrate the holiday in its secular fashion … right?
I was at the Walgreens a few weeks ago and they were stocking an end cap with Chanukah goodies — candles, cookie cutters, wrapping materials, gelt and more. I stopped, thought to myself “Already?” I then remembered that Chanukah comes early this year, much to my dismay. I’m not going to lie and pretend that this time of year doesn’t create some type of emotional and psychological snafu for me. I prefer when Chanukah falls right in line with Christmas, not earlier, not later. It’s just easier. I don’t know why, but it just makes the month of December move a little more smoothly in my book.
I don’t stress out or freak out about whether the fact that I spent 20+ years of my life with a Christmas tree decked out in whites and silvers with happy holiday treats tucked snugly in my very own stocking hung on a fireplace or — later in life — on the stairwell banister. Christmas in my house was never religious. Baby Jesus was nonexistent pretty much my whole life and the “meaning of the season” was never something talked about. It was just that time of year when we put up my mom’s beautiful tree, wrapped gifts, and watched the Christmas parades on TV. We’d have a big Christmas meal with a glazed ham (eek!) or rouladen, this classic German dish my mom always liked to make that I pretty much detested. There were scalloped potatoes and pie and cookies. It was just a day to sit around, play with new toys, and hope for snow.
My favorite part about the holidays, though, was that it wasn’t religious. I only went to one Christmas service in my life, and I’ll admit it was absolutely beautiful. I say this because the church was decked out in lights and garland and the service went right through my ears without registering. I was focused on the lights. My family would hop in the car between Christmas and New Year’s and peruse town in search of the most amazing, see-it-on-satellite-from-space light experiences. Houses adorned with giant, blow-up santas and snowmen and plastic reindeer dangling from roofs.
When I think of Christmas, I think of light. To me, December — whether it is Chanukah or the holly holiday that is meant to be holy — is about bringing light unto a dark, sometimes overwhelming world.
Despite not “celebrating” Christmas, it poses some interesting challenges for the Jew by Choice. Ever since I stopped “celebrating” (mid-college years), my mom has found it harder and harder to get out the tree and put up the ornaments because I wouldn’t help her put up the ornaments. To my mom, the tree was one consistent thing that we always had and did, it was our memory that we built together, as a family (whether we liked it or not!). So last year, mom didn’t put up the tree. No ornaments, no lights. I don’t think they went out to look at the town’s lights, either. It ceased to be special for my mom, and I can’t help but feel like in some way by choosing to not celebrate the holiday — however secular it was in our house — I was the Grinch who stole my mother’s Christmas.
It’s word games when I talk to my family. I ask my little brother “So … what do you want … for the holidays?” It’s become this generic way of getting around saying “Christmas,” because it riles the questions “But you don’t CELEBRATE Christmas, sis!” They don’t celebrate Chanukah, so what’s a Jew to do? I buy cards for my relatives who either don’t know I’m Jewish or who didn’t react when I told them, the cards reading “I hope the holidays fill your house with joy” with a snowflake in sprinkled glitter adorning the front. It’s the best I can do to keep the peace and try to stay in the spirit of the season. When the office jockeys talk about Christmas parties, I just link eyes with the other Jew in the room and it’s like the word was never uttered, “holiday” placed primly in its place (to be all-inclusive, of course).
My parents have slowly come into the idea that Christmas is not on my calendar, per se, and last year even got me a few Chanukah items. A music box, among other things. They try, and I try, and it all works out. But maybe I’m lucky because I wasn’t raised with the manger on the dinner table, having to move baby Jesus slowly to make sure I don’t crack the fine porcelain while preparing to set the table for dinner. It was just Santa and Rudolph. My Christmas was secular and harmless, really!
But I think, as I said, the thing that connects the two holidays — no matter who you are or what you believe or celebrate — is that wintertime is meant to be a season of light. Chanukah a holiday of lights (albeit a minor holiday), and Christmas being a holiday to bring light in remembering the star above Bethlehem, or what have you (see how little I know!?). I began to notice today the lights going up everywhere, and it made me brim with happiness. In winter the day is so brief, and before you know it the light has gone away. Some days, the light is barely there, filled with clouds and snow instead. So people place white lights on their shrubs and in their windows, and yes, maybe there’s a Christmas tree hidden in there somewhere, but isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it revealing and awe inspiring?
“And G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Genesis 1:3)
Light is the guide on our path, so that we do not stumble, and if we do stumble, it brings us back up and helps us carry on. Light rings of wisdom and revelation, of truth and knowledge. Our mission is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), and every time I step out into the night during this time of year and see lights flickering along sidewalks and in tall apartment windows, I cannot help but feel that my steps are a little lighter, a little more guided.
Winter has always been my favorite season. Despite the snow (which I love anyhow) and the darkness, the lights are what I love most. I don’t think so much about the motive for them being there as I do that they are a symbol, though those who put them up may not even think of them in such a manner. They might just be a decoration to some or an irritating reminder of Christmas to others, but to me, they are a reminder of my mission.
I hope to see more gleanings on Chanukah as it approaches. In truth, it’s not that far away. Until I gather more thoughts, shalom to you friends.
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