My grandmother used to tell me the story of how, one December, she persuaded her younger sisters to hide a pine tree in their father’s barn and decorate it with ribbons and necklaces. She also taught me the traditional Jewish blessings and when I hear the prayers, I hear her voice, the Hebrew given the distinctive pronunciation of Eastern Europe , where her parents were born. Baruch ataw adonai, she would say, the “aw” sound drawn out and low.
Hannukah is about many things, but, both originally and in its current incarnation, at least as practiced by basically secular Jews like me, one of things it’s most about is assimilation. It’s easy enough to light a menorah and the candles look pretty as they shine from the window sill. The more difficult question, especially in households with young children or non-Jewish members, is what to do about the other December holiday. I come down on the side of no Christmas in my house, but there’s a wide range of opinions and practices and, in my mother’s living room, there’s an Advent calendar on the mantel and Easter eggs hanging from a tinsel-draped tree.
In general, I’m not a big fan of ecumenism, at least to the extent that it’s construed as blurring, rather than celebrating, differences. But I will say this: here and now, in this season of expectation, as we make our way through the Northern Hemisphere’s dark days and cold nights, there are times when every holiday, no matter what its name, looks an awful lot like a festival of lights.