Days grow short, weather turns cold and for me, at least, an odd craving for Chinese food grabs hold — yup, it’s definitely December again.
And while Christmas may be in the air, in a phenomenon meteorologists call “holiday inversion,” here on the ground some of us are already celebrating our own seasonal excuse to consume salt, fat, sugar and wrapping paper.
That’s right, folks, it’s Hanukkah time! I’m breaking out the old menorah and putting on my dreidel-spinning shoes because for eight nights we’re going to party like it’s 165 BC (the actual year of the Maccabean revolt, which Hanukkah commemorates).
For those unfamiliar with Judaism, or Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” let me hip you (as only a Jew can): Biblically-speaking, the holiday celebrates a small band of ancient Hebrews who, after defeating the Greek army and liberating Jerusalem, rededicated the Holy Temple — of which the Western Wall still stands — by lighting one day’s worth of oil that miraculously lasted eight days. Hence lighting a ceremonial eight-candled Hanukkah menorah. So, aside from providing what may be the first documented warning about over-reliance on fossil fuels, Hanukkah holds little actual religious significance.
And yet, a recent survey shows it is by far the most commonly observed holiday among American Jews. Case in point: while nary a board of matzah has passed my lips in years, at my house, we’ve been cooking and eating “latkes,” or potato pancakes, since Black Friday. I serve them, as per custom, smothered in applesauce and sour cream. See what I mean about salt, fat and sugar? BTW, the other traditional Hanukkah food: doughnuts. Seriously. It’s hard not to love a holiday that involves doughnuts and what are essentially deep-fried hashbrown patties.
Of course, Hanukkah isn’t all about defying your cardiologists’ orders and giving an over-compensatory number of gifts to your children. The holiday enjoys an interesting history in this country, even possibly playing a role in its birth.
According to historic lore, Hanukkah may have inspired then-General George Washington to press on at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777. Story goes that Washington, walking amongst his cold, hungry troops, spotted a Jewish Continental soldier huddled away from camp, lighting Hanukkah candles. The soldier — an immigrant fleeing religious persecution — told Washington about the miraculous victory of the Maccabean militia over a much larger and better equipped foe. Those tiny flames, George Washington later told hosts at a future Hanukkah dinner, warmed him at a moment of profound bleakness. And he’s famously incapable of lying, so, the story must be true.
Popular American observance of Hanukkah didn’t take off until after the Civil War — same for Christmas and Thanksgiving, too, actually — thanks to urbanization, industrialization and the advent of marketing. Modern Hanukkah, with gifts and songs and synagogue observance, was “invented” toward the end of the 19th century by two rabbis from Cincinnati looking for a way to reconnect with Jewish youth. Talk about a successful re-branding campaign: in contemporary Judaism, lighting Hanukkah candles ranks as the most frequently performed mitzvah, or “commandment” (perhaps you’re familiar with the first 10 of them).
So pervasive has Hanukkah become in popular culture, U.S. presidents light a national menorah. While Jimmy Carter lit the first national menorah in 1979, the first official White House Hanukkah candle-lighting did not take place until the Clinton Administration. George W. Bush turned the event into an annual happening — he even began a tradition of koshering the whole White House kitchen specifically for the occasion.
The 2010 White House Hanukkah Party featured a menorah salvaged from a synagogue leveled in Hurricane Katrina, kosher sushi and live jazz. What else would you expect from an Obama Hanukkah, or, as I like to call it “Obamakkah”? BTW, his is the first First Family to host an annual White House Passover Seder, at which Malia and Sasha ask the four questions. You’d think he might’ve found a way to work that into the Florida debate this past November.
Let me go on record: I like Christmas. A lot of Jews do. It’s hard not to love a holiday that ushers in two straight months of eggnog. That stuff is like melted ice cream that sometimes gets you wasted.
Hanukkah-celebrant though I may be, however, the “War on Christmas” is not my war. I’ve got no problem saying “Merry Christmas,” nor do I get my yarmulke in a bunch when someone says it to me. Honestly, who has the time or energy to take issue with the wishing of merriment — any kind of merriment — as opposed to the usual verbal feces we fling at each other?
But while I agree that Christmas makes a great case for truly being the most wonderful time of year, it’s not my holiday, plain and simple. And that, for all who ask me year after year after year, is why I don’t have a Christmas tree.
Of course, by the same token, it’s also why I’ve festooned my house with blue-and-white Hanukkah lights and hung “Star of David” stockings by the chimney. The milk and cookies I left out? Those aren’t for Santa; they’re for me. On second thought, better make it latkes and eggnog. Gotta get as much of both while I still can.
Happy holidays, everyone, whichever ones you choose to observe, and please, let’s all remember the reason for the season: supporting our consumer-based economy.