At sundown tomorrow, December 4th, candles will be lit all over the world in Jewish households, as Hanukah - the Festival of Lights - begins. And for 8 nights, gifts and gelt will be given, dreidels spun, and latkes eaten to celebrate.
It is important to remember that Hanukah is traditionally only a minor holiday in the Jewish faith. However, it's importance has grown over the past century , most likely due to the fact that it falls right around Christmastime when the Christian world is celebrating the birth of Jesus. Hanukah is probably the best known Jewish holiday to those of non-Jewish heritage.
As a child, I loved to celebrate Hanukah. In general we were a secular family, mostly due to the difficulty faced by my mother in reconciling her own Christian beliefs with my father's parents' Jewish faith and traditions, and my father's own lack of interest in being involved in religious concerns of any kind. When my parents married (in a Jewish ceremony), my mother agreed to raise any children they might have in the Jewish faith, and (since Conservative Judaism is passed down through the mother) she went through the process to convert to Judaism as well.
You have to give her credit - she did all of this to appease my grandparents and although she was intrigued by the Jewish faith as well, she didn't have the background or knowledge to draw upon. She tried her best, without much instruction or direction, to give my brother and I as much of a Jewish upbringing as she could. But this was soon hampered by the deaths of my grandparents when I was in kindergarten and first grade, and by my father's general indifference to anything of a religious nature.
Except for lighting the Hanukah candles.
Every year, for 8 days we would pull out the menorah, light the candles and listen to the children's Hanukah record that my mother had bought since she did not know, and my father did not remember, the blessing to be sung over the lighting of the candles. My brother and I would watch the flames dance as the candles grew ever shorter and eventually were snuffed out by the lack of fuel. Watching each little flame extinguish itself was a favorite pastime as we would try to guess which candle would go out next. My father liked to arrange the colorful candles in varying patterns - every night a different combination.
And yes, we got presents. Not for all 8 nights, since we had Christmas gifts to look forward to as well. But a somewhat substantial gift for each of us on the first night, and then on the second, something for us to share - usually a game of some sort. We had no other Jewish children around to play dreidel with, but my mother usually made latkes (potato pancakes) for us to eat. Over time, the rest of the few Jewish traditions and holidays that my mother had tried to observe fell by the wayside - but we still celebrated Hanukah in the best ways that we could.
It's strange perhaps that even now, both Hanukah and Christmas are intertwined for me. I would have a difficult time celebrating one without the other. I haven't always been able to light the menorah every year (until recently, it's been difficult to even find Hanukah candles in this conservative, mostly Christian part of the state), but the candles have always burned in my heart, just as the lights on the Christmas tree do as well. And no matter where else my faith has taken me, I will always, in a way, be - both and neither - Christian and Jewish.