Monday, December 22, 2008

A White House Chanuka Without Santa

When captioning the photos I took in the White House on my computer, I decided to refresh my memories by re-reading the souvenir booklet guests received as we departed the Chanuka reception last Monday night. "A Red, White and Blue Christmas: Holidays at the White House 2008" describes the decorations in the main rooms, illustrated in a charming children's-book watercolor style by Peter Catalanotto. I noticed two departures from the printed descriptions that I assume were made in deference to Jewish sensitivities.
In the East Room, the largest room in the White House, "a beautiful creche of terra cotta and carved wood figurines is displayed on the east wall," the booklet notes. "This treasured 18th-century Italian nativity scene, given to the White House by Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., has been on display in the East Room every Christmas season since 1967." But not for the Chanuka party.

In fact, I realized that even kindly St. Nick was excused. We know that some Jews, notably members of Chabad, eschew the idea of saints so much they called my prior hometown S. Monica. And so, especially after the recent slaughter of the selfless Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, and with Chabad representatives coming early to "kasher" the White House kitchen for the preparation of the kosher repast, the jolly old elf vacated the premises.

This was especially noticeable on the "one-of-a-kind gingerbread house in the State Dining Room... [of] the southern view of the White House," according to the booklet. "Hundreds of pounds of chocolate, more than 150 gingerbread sheets and countless hours of hard work went into this masterful and delicious creation." The confection looked so sturdy that at first I thought it to be a wooden yule miniature, with its figures of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps marching in front. On top, a white sleigh, led by eight cookie reindeer, was about to land on the roof. And who was commanding the reins? Well, for the Jewish event, its "mascots," little chocolate replicas of pets Barney, Miss Beazley and Willie, had earned a promotion. Santa was nowhere to be seen.

I would not have been at all offended to find Mr. Claus in his vehicle (which, after all, doesn't rely on foreign oil) or even to see the creche, which clearly has historical significance even if it holds no religious meaning for me. I'm not one to say "Happy Holidays" when "Merry Christmas" is the more proper greeting for someone. And in a home where the occupants are Christian, I respect and appreciate their artistry and enjoyment in expressing the beauty of their holiday, which, after all, centers on the birth of Jesus, their Christ, their savior. We were in the midst of dozens of Christmas trees, glittering with colored balls and lights and garlands. While the adjustments to two of their decorations was out of courtesy, greatly appreciated, I do think all who attended would have felt just as honored were they in their usual places.

An additional gift to guests was a copy of President Bush's Hanukkah Greeting (his spelling) that says, "During the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, we remember the ancient struggle for freedom. More than 21 centuries ago, a cruel tyrant ruled Judea and forbade the Israelites from practicing their religion. A small band of brothers called the Maccabees came together to liberate their land and reclaim the Holy Temple."

Well, it was a bit more complicated than that...including the fact that the battle was even more a civil war between those Jews who would assimilate into the Hellenistic culture, and those who defended God's laws. It was less a "struggle for freedom" than a stand against "tolerance" and "diversity" in favor of adherence to a Torah that was decidedly different and not very elastic. Also, while Judah, of the priestly Hasmonean clan, son of the Hasmonean leader Mattathias, was called "Maccabee" (which means "hammer"), we also learn that the Hebrew letters spelling Maccabee, mem chaf bet yud, inscribed on his shield, were an acronym for the phrase "mi chamocha eilim hashem," which means, "Who among all gods is like You?"

We also received a beautiful copy of the President's remarks to the members of the Israeli Knesset, delivered May 15, 2008. If you haven't read this excellent speech, you should.

Tonight is the second night of Chanuka. We lit our menorahs (one per member of our family) in the window of our den, where (theoretically, at least) neighbors for several miles who look up to the hill on which we live could see the candles burning, publicizing the miracle that God not only gave the Jews the Torah, but continued to honor His covenants to sustain the Jewish people and prevent their extinction. The miracle of Chanuka, the light on the darkest days of the year, reminded Jews through generations of persecution that God will rescue them. And we, so privileged to live in this greatest nation on God's green earth, must remember what saved them and will sustain us--resolute determination to pursue God's will.

I don't think we'll be invited to another White House Chanuka party for awhile, but at least this time I captured some of it in photos, and certainly vividly in my mind. We're headed out of snowy Seattle for a few days; not exactly a vacation since my husband will be working, but for us a long-anticipated family time and, oh yes! some sunshine! To my Jewish friends, Chanuka Sameach! And to my Christian friends, a very Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE the snow photo--I am going to eat one of those icicles. HOPE you are enjoying your well-earned non-vacation vacation.... love!