I have a confession to make: I like Christmastime.
I'm a Jew through-and-through, and I love Chanuka--as well. This year it starts Tuesday night, quite a bit earlier than the other holiday. We'll have our annual white-elephant-exchange game at our party the first night, planned for that evening so my sorority daughter can then buckle-down in study for her quarter's-end finals that start the following week. Our party with its latkes and sufganiot and many games is a tradition we all love, and many of her sorority sisters will be joining the fun. We put up twinkling white lights and signs and blue and silver garlands. Last year, a monsoon windstorm hit the day before, meaning our entire party was by candlelight and guests kept their coats on in our 30-degree home. The blackout lasted eight days for us...just like Chanuka, and that storm was dubbed by the media, "the Chanuka eve windstorm."
But I still like Christmastime. I like the carols (not their lyrics, except for their message of peace and goodwill to men) and the glitter and bustle and smiles and the Salvation Army Santa bell-ringers to whom I always give a dollar. When I'm in New York, I like the fantasy moving store displays and Bryant Park ice rink and Rockefeller Center. Here in the Northwest, I like the carousel in Westlake Plaza, the nightly drummers and lightshow at Bellevue Square, Tacoma's amazing Zoolights animals, and the Bellevue Botanical Garden's astounding flowers made entirely from lights (above). Though I'm kosher, I love Coulon Park's Clamlights, sponsored by local restaurant icon Ivar's, the motto of which is, "Keep Clam." I can see that display in miniature across Lake Washington from my home, its huge cottonwood trees festooned top-to-bottom with strings of lights.
I like returning a "Merry Christmas" to checkers at Target. I like seeing eager children lined up at the mall for their moment on Santa's lap, and their equally pleased parents enjoying their little ones' anticipation. I squeal with delight when I see beautiful light displays on homes, "OOOOH! Beautiful!" And I used to enjoy the sparkles and glimmers on the Christmas trees at Seatac Airport.
Now the story gets complicated. Some in the Jewish world feel that because the entire purpose of Chanuka is to distinguish us as Jews who follow the Torah from our surrounding culture-- hearkening back to the defiled Temple in Jerusalem that Maccabean fighters seeking to restore God's law regained from Hellenistic, assimilationist Jews --we ought to completely withdraw from the Christian holiday around us. That would preclude appreciating seasonal carols, or viewing outdoor light displays, or wrapping gifts for non-Jews in red-and-green paper.
Last year, in an unfortunate misunderstanding, it appeared some Jews were offended by the traditional green Christmas tree display at Seatac Airport. The brouhaha caused the permanent removal of that decor, replaced this year, ironically, by silver-sprayed bare tree branches. No one can object to the theme of cold, leafless winter.
Now, I wouldn't consider any decorations at my own house that smack of Christmas. I wouldn't even come close--no holly, no fir wreath, no colored lights--because we are firmly and unequivocally Jewish and I would feel uncomfortable with them. And by providing my children a Jewish education, and living as Torah-observant Jews every day of the year, they have internalized a Jewish identity and are not at risk of confusion.
Without a Jewish life--daily prayer, eating kosher, Shabbat and yom tov, constant learning, watching us strive in our Torah knowledge--there might be an issue. They know the purpose of Chanuka, the root of which is "chinuk," education, but that also means "dedication," as the Temple was re-dedicated to its Godly purpose. With that basis, they can bring their friends to our Chanuka party, sharing with them our traditions. And at the same time, they can join me in thrilling to the beautiful light displays and musical performances and feelings of cheer that emanate in the larger culture.
There's lots of beauty in this dark time of year, especially with our "Festival of Lights." On Tuesday night, I'll once again use the heirloom menorah that my mother-in-law's parents spirited out of Nazi Germany among the very few possessions they escaped with. I will joyfully sing Maor Tzur with my husband and two of my three children (missing my absent daughter on that day especially!) and serve my home-made latkes with sour cream and applesauce.
I do not think it detracts from Chanuka, however, to enjoy as an outsider, the sights, sounds and happiness of the majority religion. For me, the ability to fully engage in Jewish life is primary--but the secondary colors and celebration that uplifts and reminds my neighbors of God--enhance this otherwise dreary time of year.
As I write, rain pelts onto my window, as it has all day. Over Shabbat, we had three inches of snow, fat flakes flying in a blustery breeze that gave way in the early morn to warmer drops pinging the skylights. We're supposed to get some more strong winds tonight as the storm becomes more fierce...I can only hope we retain our electric illumination on Chanuka eve this year as we add the spiritual component with the oil of our menorah.