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Eight Crazy Nights And One Crazy Day: Why We Celebrate Hanukkah AND Christmas

Grammar school memory: it’s Oklahoma, a tiny Air Force town with the unlikely name of Enid, the late 70’s, December. The winters are unforgiving, especially during the holiday season. Rather, the Christmas Season — this was, after all, a school made up of white Christian kids, where each day began with The Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, in that order. The hallways and classrooms were festooned with manger scenes and Christmas trees, in that order. I wasn’t much into the whole Jesus thing, then as now — I and most of my classmates, even and probably especially the ones whose parents dragged them to church each and every Sunday, worshiped Santa. The reason for the season: presents. But there was a special anxiety, along with the usual Naughty Or Nice-related ones. My mom’s Jewish, and when you’re the only kid in your class who can count his name among the Chosen (well, per Jewish law, anyway — my agnostic views had already taken shape, and then as now I wasn’t going to cast my lot with any single religion; gotta keep your options open, in case one of ‘em actually turns out to be correct) and many of your classmates share the same religious tolerance as their parents (the same tolerance shown to gay and black people, which is to say none at all), you keep your mouth shut and sing Hark, The Herald Angels Sing as loud as the rest of ‘em.

Hanukkah kicks off tonight, and with it the special challenge of balancing our very secular Christmas with our slightly askew Festival of Lights. I still refuse to commit to Religion; thus far it hasn’t been a problem, and in fact has worked out quite nicely. Even if I wasn’t a borderline atheist, I’d still remain a spiritual free agent; despite the fact that mom’s a non-practicing Jew who hasn’t been to Temple in decades, accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior would be a slap in the face to half of my family. I figure if I lead a good life here on earth, things will work out in the afterlife, if indeed one exists.

So we do both, like many mixed-religion families; there’s a menorah sitting on the fireplace mantle right next to our Christmas tree, and when the sun drops, we’ll gather around, I’ll mangle the traditional prayer that one says while lighting the candles (“Baroque hattah Illinois something something yay Hanukkah!”), and the kids will open up a present. Zoe’s four, and still too young to really get why we do both, or even understand that Christmas and Hanukkah are two entirely different things. But Lucas gets it, and is looking forward to tonight. A couple years back, he got a GI Joe Cobra Commander, which naturally prompted me to sing an impromptu verse of Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song: ” Cobra Commander/Not a Jew/But guess who is? Jedi Master Mace Windu!” This year the kids each get a new movie: nothing like Transformers: Dark Of The Moon to get you in the Hanukkah spirit. Actually, it does kind of fit: Hanukkah is sort of a badass holiday, what with celebrating the victory of the rebel Maccabees over Antiochus and his empire. Rebels? Empire? Lucas ate this up. Still does.

Not that it was always so. Back in kindergarten, the dual nature of my family’s holiday season didn’t sit well with him. Every Monday, the class had Share Day. One morning, over coffee and Honey-Nut Cheerios, we talked about the menorah. “You should bring it,” I said. “It’ll be cool. I think you’re the only kid in your class that has one. And Miss K will be stoked!” Miss K, his teacher, is Jewish. Lucas was hesitant. “I don’t wanna,” he complained. “I’d rather bring my Reindeer Antlers.” These were a pair of head ornaments that we’d purchased at the Borders a few nights ago. He looked distraught. “Are you confused about Hanukkah?,” I asked. “Do you understand the whole thing?” “Not really,” he said. “I don’t understand Jewish.” I had a quick flashback: the frozen plains of Enid, and a secret I kept out of fear. “Well… all you need to do is tell people that it’s a holiday that we and a lot of other people celebrate; talk about the lighting of the candles, and how it’s a nice time to be with family. Really, a lot like Christmas.”

That moment, and how it resolved itself, stayed with me; I thought about it today while rushing about, doing some last minute holiday shopping. On that Share Day morning, we walked into the schoolyard. “Miss K!”, Lucas yelled. “I brought my menorah for Share Day!” She gave him a big grin. “That’s great!” The kids played for a bit, then filed in to their respective classrooms. I headed home, thinking on something I’d told him on the drive to school. “Most kids only get one holiday day in December. We get NINE.” He thought on this. “That’s pretty special,” he said. “Yes”, I replied. “Yes it is.”

Read more of Jason’s writing at DadCentric.

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