O Chanukah

Some may say I’m blowing this out of proportion, but probably I’m not: I feel like the material world has stolen Chanukah. Picked it up in a big red bag, slung it over its shoulder, and made off on a sleigh drawn by a dog with one antler. It makes me lax to light candles, eat latkes, even spin the dreidle.

Yet here I am, and here’s Chanukah. What to do?

It’s starts a lot like this: I’m out with a friend and he says, “What’s the big deal with Chanukah?” And I’m like, “There isn’t one.” He wants to know why there’s all these big decorations, why there’s all this gift-giving, why it’s the one time of year when suddenly the whole world knows about Judaism.

Because, you know, he adds, it’s just not politically correct to say “Merry Christmas” anymore because you might offend them Jews, so what’s the big ol’ deal with Chanukah?

Ignoring for a moment the privilege spawning such comments (that blindly accepts Christianity as the norm and disregards all else–and then panics when anyone else wants to be treated equally: that’s religious privilege), it’s insidious to think Chanukah is pumped up so much without actually bringing an informed awareness to the people. The majority of my friends hear Chanukah and think: light candles, get presents, Jewish Christmas.

But that’s wrong. And it bothers me. Because Chanukah is not just a Jew’s answer to Christmas–it has its own place in our pantheon of observances, and although media outlets would suggest otherwise, there are holidays far more important than Chanukah.

And yet…while I could go into the specifics (and I will, in a following post), I just feel alienated this holiday season–and it’s more than a matter of being politically correct: When people blindly wish me a merry Christmas, it stings.

I understand holiday cheer, I get that, and part of me appreciates the warmth–we don’t see that in retail but once a year, you know? And I understand why Christians feel strongly for the holiday–past all the material, commercialized, blast-me-with-holiday-music-since-Thanksgiving facade, there really is a true meaning to Christmas: the birth of God. And who wouldn’t celebrate something so magnificent if they sincerely believe in it?

But the overflow of holiday spirits isn’t always a comfortable ride: Sometimes the tide sweeps me away, makes me feel insignificant, makes me remember how other I am being Jewish. The dining halls decorate for Christmas. It’s draped across every building and every store I have to enter. And then everyone wishes me “Merry Christmas” and it’s the icing on the gingerbread man: the last adornment before he’s eaten alive.

I understand this is a classic example of the intent not aligning with the impact: Whereas they intend to uplift my spirits, whereas they intend to bring a little joy and light into my dark and (sometimes) cold (because, hey, this is North Carolina) winter, whereas their words are honest, pure, and full of compassion, it comes across stale, razor-edged, and insensitive: It makes me feel as though I should be Christian, that being anything else isn’t worth recognizing, that my passions and causes for excitement aren’t good enough to be shared or even acknowledged.

Every “Merry Christmas” I hear invalidates my faith one syllable at a time.

I know that’s not what people mean to do, but for how long should I make excuses for ignorance? How long should I face the insensitive and not darken their dreary days with a reality check? How long should I be forced to set my beliefs aside instead of sharing them–instead of taking the light of these small Chanukah candles and illuminating the world with their joy, with their warmth, with their promises and reminders of everyday miracles?

It doesn’t seem right. The candles are snuffed before they’re even lit.

Just because someone couldn’t say Happy Chanukah.

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