Celebrating Holiday Lights

Hanukah, Christmas both joyful - but not exactly equal

December 22, 2008 - Sioux Falls Argus Leader, by Marty Gallanter

I grew up in an all Jewish neighborhood in Newark , NJ .  The public schools closed on the Jewish High Holy Days because there was no one to attend and no one available to teach.

So in December there were no Christmas lights on the houses.  On my block, Christmas simply didn’t exist.  My dad would load my sister and I in the car and drive us to the Christian neighborhoods to see the decorations.  When I asked why we couldn’t light our house that way, my dad simply said, “Jewish people don’t do that.”  My brother was born in 1955 and by the time he was old enough to ask, Dad’s answer had changed to, “We have Chanukah.”

But when I learned more, it seemed to me that Chanukah simply did not rise to the level of a Christmas substitute.  How could we compare celebrating the birth of a messiah with a military victory enhanced by a minor miracle. The comparison wasn’t fair.  It’s the culture that creates the holiday, not the importance of the event.

Christmas did not earn its “holiday” status in the English speaking world until after Charles Dickens published the Christmas Carol in 1843.  Queen Victoria fell in love with the book and started to celebrate the day in a big way.  The Queen was a trend setter and her joy spread through Great Britain and in time to America .  So it really wasn’t unusual back then for Scrooge to expect Bob Cratchit to work on Christmas Day.  The US Congress continued to meet on December 25th until well after the Civil War.

Of course the birth of Jesus had always been celebrated in the churches just as Chanukah was celebrated in the synagogues.  But some Jewish parents, like my late father, offered it as a consolation prize for not celebrating Christmas.  We Americans like big celebrations so it was easy for a relatively minor holiday like Chanukah to take on special status.  In Israel Chanukah barely dents the work week and is usually an excuse for a series of dinner parties.  Only the children get presents and no one would think of spending a lot of money.

I am older and hopefully wiser now and in South Dakota I live among the Christians.  I don’t have to drive to look at holiday lights.  I can also share a special joy in my Christian friends celebrating the birth of their savior even if I don’t have the same religious convictions.  I pause, only pause, along with the other members of our Jewish community, and celebrate Chanukah.  I like it, but it is more important to children who may be too young to understand why they can’t have lights on their houses.  Still we Jews are a blessed people. Our calendar is filled with many important celebrations.  I can wait for those days while offering the wish that all of my non-Jewish friends have a very merry Christmas.

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