Tonight, Hanukkah begins. And while I’m sure I’m supposed to feel some inner call to bask in the glow of the menorah, I probably won’t. Sad as it sounds, I just can’t get into it, and I’m not sure I’m alone. As Howard Jacobson tells us in today’s New York Times:
The word –Hanukkah – is lovely, but what’s the festival itself for? What does it do? …The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas.
Hanukkah has potential. First of all, it comes at a nice time of year. Goodwill is generally pretty high, as we’re all coming right off Thanksgiving and holiday specials and Kay Jeweler ads.
Second, there are candles. Candlelight has a truly softening effect; parents look more loving, and children better-behaved, when lit by the menorah.
Finally, the gifts. While the materialistic zeal attached to Hanukkah is probably an effect of its hastily applied reputation as “The Jewish Christmas,” everyone likes a nice gift swap. Growing up, we never did the wishlist a child might send to Santa, but everyone got presents and seemed to enjoy them.
There’s chocolate (small “coins” wrapped in gold foil called gelt), games (dreidl), gifts and the glow of candlelight: So why isn’t it a bigger holiday? Why won’t I be traveling the 1,100 miles back to my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, the way I might in a few weeks if we celebrated Christmas?
Aside from the fact that I was just there last week, and I’ve realized that everyone finds me a lot more charming if I space out my visits home, Hanukkah just isn’t that big a deal.
Religiously, it’s on a different plane than Rosh Hashanah, when we ring in the new year, and Yom Kippur, when we vacillate between shame, fear and hunger. It lacks the tradition and pomp of Passover, or the self-congratulatory partying of Purim.
Moving outside the religious realm, Hanukkah as some major PR problems that keep it from being what it could – a nice time of year for family to gather ’round the menorah and argue about who’s more likely, if given lighting privileges, to set the house on fire.
For starters, no one can agree how to spell it. I’ve settled on Hanukkah, which seems to be the most popular option, but there’s the two-n variety, the Ch– style, and the rarely-used-but-definitely-defensible one-n-one-k option. Can you blame Hallmark for not embracing it?
Secondly, it moves around every year. It’s like trying to get excited about your birthday and then realizing you’ve missed it. The years I remember most thoroughly enjoying Hanukkah were the ones it fell close to Christmas; we borrowed some of the palpable holiday cheer and enjoyed a few days off school and work.
Third, it has a terrible soundtrack. Christmas music is just terrific. The best Hanukkah has is “Rock of Ages,” which has even less panache in the original Hebrew, Maoz Tzur. “I Have a Little Dreidl,” pardon the pun, can’t hold a candle to “Jingle Bell Rock.”
So tonight I’ll call my parents and wish them a happy Hanukkah. But then I’ll settle in for “Modern Family” and “Law & Order” and probably won’t do much else to mark the passing of Hanukkah.Except the chocolate wrapped in foil. That’s always a nice touch.