Chanukah begins on Wednesday night this year. Tomorrow night. December first. Yes, it is confusing. Even we Jews are confused. Why – everyone is wondering -- does Chanukah coincide with Christmas some years, and other years, Chanukah arrives weeks before?
The answer is that the Jewish calendar is different from the secular calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and the secular calendar is solar. Since each Jewish month is only 28 days long, and the secular months are 30 or 31 days long, after a few years, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar become out of sync. The Jewish calendar corrects this by actually adding an extra month every few years in order to get things back to normal. This spring, there will be an extra Jewish month (Adar II) added, and by next Chanukah, Christmas and Chanukah will coincide once more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Chanukah is really a very minor holiday in the Jewish year. The Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover are much more important than Chanukah. But due to its (sometimes) proximity to Christmas, Chanukah has become much more important than it was originally intended to be, especially in the U.S. And then, of course, there are the presents. Eight nights of presents.
Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood, the only way my parents could convince us that celebrating Chanukah was a good thing compared to our neighbors’ exciting Christmas celebrations was by giving us eight presents: one for each night of Chanukah. Yes, our neighbors had the Christmas tree. Yes, they had Santa Claus. Yes, they hung stockings by the fire with care. Yes, they had Christmas carols. Yes, they had the beautiful decorative lights hung on the bushes and trees. But we had eight nights of presents.
In general, Chanukah traditions are much simpler than Christmas traditions. You light the Chanukah menorah. You sing some songs. You spin the dreidle (a special top). You eat chocolate gelt (coins). You eat potato latkes (pancakes). You get some presents. You give some presents. Repeat for eight nights. End of story.
Christmas traditions seem much more complicated and stressful to me. Procuring, transporting and putting up a live tree in your living-room. Decorating the house, inside and out. Buying expensive presents for everyone in your family. Cooking a special Christmas meal. Traveling to be with family. The whole Santa Claus thing.
On the other hand, Christmas takes up a huge chunk of space in the American consciousness. It’s really really hard to be left out of the Christmas festivities when all the radio stations are playing Christmas music, everyone other TV show is about Christmas, houses are decorated with Christmas lights, every store is loaded with Christmas paraphernalia of all kinds, everyone wishes you Merry Christmas, etc. As a child, I really really really wanted to celebrate Christmas. In spite of the eight nights of presents. I wanted a tree. I wanted a stocking. I wanted Santa. I wanted all of it.
Now that years have passed and I have a child of my own, I think things are somewhat better in our multi-cultural, pluralistic, internet-connected world. My son is interested in Christmas, but he doesn’t seem quite as jealous as I remember feeling growing up. We generally celebrate Christmas with a close family friend, and after decorating her tree and exchanging presents, he seems to have had enough of Christmas for one year.
But the “December dilemma” remains. What does it mean to be Jewish during a prolonged, public, and pervasive holiday season? It becomes even more complicated for interfaith couples, now a large proportion of Jewish families. Do they buy a Christmas tree even though they are also celebrating Chanukah? Do Christmas ham and potato latkes go together? Can Santa visit as well as Judah Maccabee?
I’m not sure if we will ever solve the “December dilemma” here in the U.S. Meanwhile, I’ll sing along to Christmas carols on the radio, enjoy the pretty lights around town, wish my neighbors Merry Christmas, light the candles, spin the dreidle, eat latkes, and hope that the next generation does it even better.
P.S. I'm happy to announce that this post was published last week in the "Being" blog, which was the inspiration for it being written in the first place.