I will admit that my brother and I, as kids, begged our parents for a Christmas tree. We watched all of the Christmas holiday television specials, we wished we could decorate the house and we wanted to tell our friends in school that we also heard Santa’s sleigh land on our house on Christmas Eve.
Each year, when we were doing our begging, our parents would say the same thing: “We are Jewish. We celebrate Chanukah.” I finally calmed down a bit when a non-Jewish friend told me, “The only difference is that you get a present a day for eight days, we get all ours on one day.” With that moment of truth, I also started to pay attention to what Chanukah really meant.
I did not marry a Jewish man; however, our kids will be brought up Jewish. As kind as he was about that decision, we do celebrate Christmas only for the festive side of it — a tree and some presents. All of the religious aspects we keep as strictly Jewish. So, now we have our own Chanukah traditions with some of my parents traditions, and their parents traditions intertwined.
1) The First Day of Chanukah
This is our big night. We get the menorah out and, at sundown, light the first candle with the “shamash,” which is the center (or ninth) candle in the menorah. As we light the candle, we say the blessings. Because my father did this year after year, we also tell an abbreviated tale of what Chanukah means. It “commemorates the re-dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E.” In order to make the temple pure again, the Jews used oil that was only enough for one lamp, and it lasted for eight days which was seen as a sign and a miracle.
Then, thanks to a set of cool grandparents, we tell one joke that is brand new or has either been around for generations (but that we have been able to also find searching the web):
My mother once gave me two sweaters for Chanukah. The next time we visited, I made sure to wear one. As we entered her home, instead of the expected smile, she said, “What’s the matter? You didn’t like the other one?”
Finally, on night one, we give out the big present — the present that either costs the most, was the most wanted, or is the biggest in size.
2) On day two, once again we light the menorah at sun down
So just like the first day, we light the candles and say a Chanukah blessing. On this night, instead of gifts, we give out the Chanukah “gelt.” Gelt is a Yiddish word for money. This money is really chocolate coins which are flat chocolate pieces wrapped in gold tin foil to look exactly like coins. My Grandma Ida told me the reason kids get gelt on Chanukah was that in older times, kids were given money to give to their teachers for the Chanukah holiday. Now, the kids keep it. And eat it!
Then we tell a joke, and below is one that my Grandma Mary told to me:
“Julie, do you know what makes Chanukah better than Christmas?”
“No Grandma,” I am sure I rolled my eyes, “What?”
“If you don’t like the present you get on day two, you still have day 3, day 4, day 5, day 6, day 7 and day 8 to get what you want!”
3) Days three through seven are all the same
So there are EIGHT days, and to put it politely and not offend family members, not everyone is so creative all the time, so days three through seven are repetitive: We light the candles at sundown, we say the blessings, and we get a small gift.
Then we tell a joke each night:
Day 3: My mother once gave me two sweaters for Chanukah*. The next time we visited, I made sure to wear one. As we entered her home, instead of the expected smile, she said, “What’s the matter ? You didn’t like the other one?”
Day 4: Christmas is a major holiday. Chanukah is a minor holiday with the same theme as most Jewish holidays. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
Day 5: How do Jewish wives get their kids ready for Chanukah dinner? They put them in the car.
Day 6: If doctor carries a black bag, and a plumber carries a toolbox, what does a moehl carry? (the moehl is who does the circumcision on Jewish baby boys) A Bris-Kit
Day 7: Have you seen the newest Jewish-American Princess horror movie? It’s called, “Debbie Does Dishes.”
4) The Last Day of Chanukah
We light the candles and do the blessing, but this is a serious day. No jokes. We treat it more like Thanksgiving. What are we thankful for as Jews? Why are we lucky as Jews? How can we help others as Jews? We discuss the story of Chanukah again, share a glass of wine (grape juice for the little ones) and hug each other tightly. We are lucky to be together as Jews, as people and as a family.
Happy Chanukah to you and yours.
* There is only one way to spell Christmas. No one can decide how to spell Chanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukka, Chanukah, Hanukah, Hannukah.”