After the incredibly turbulent and uncertain year we have all endured, I think most of us can agree with Johnny Mathis’ classic that we all “need a little Christmas (and Hanukkah) now” to at least try to end 2020 on a high note. Despite this hope and naive desire for a Happy Holiday season, on top of the fact that I have not “grown a little leaner” just older and sadder, much of the world simply does not have the means to see the light and joy that comes with the season due to the burden of historic unemployment rates, the pain of our loved ones diagnosed with Covid, the helplessness of seeing our at-risk family members self-isolating in order to prevent infection, and the loneliness that comes with social distancing, leaving us with few opportunities to interact with our peers. With my own personal challenges that I have endured over the past year at the hands of the pandemic, descending into the physical darkness that the northern hemisphere bears this time of year reminds me that so many traditions associate this time period with light. At first glance, it’s kind of a strange phenomenon.
In the history of the Western world, Northern European Norsemen honored the winter solstice by means of the Yule holiday and Romans praised Saturn (the god of agriculture and time) during the week-long holiday of Saturnalia. Today, Christians rejoice on Christmas for the birth of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, Black Americans gather together at Kwanzaa to build unity within the broader Black American community as well as to pay tribute to their ancestors, and Jews commemorate the success of the Maccabean Revolt against the Greeks in rededicating (Hanukkah in Hebrew means dedication) the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel. While we can point out how some holiday traditions were exchanged between and integrated within groups, notice how Nat King Cole mentioned the singing of “Yuletide carols” in “The Christmas Song”, we can also notice that various peoples across time and cultures not only acknowledged, but celebrated light during the darkest time period of the year. By means of candle lighting and bringing joy to those around you, an emphasis on ushering in more light inside individual houses and within the greater community took precedence. Sure, differences in specific observances depended on the particular region and evolved over time, but the message remained: in the deepest darkness, we need to remember that one day the light will return and until then, let’s spread some hope, happiness, and flammable items for our enjoyment.
As Hanukkah quickly approaches, I can’t help but reminisce about how I strolled the streets of Jerusalem this time last year in 2019, when Christmas Eve and the third night of Hanukkah overlapped. I began my journey across Jerusalem by traversing through the crowds surrounding an enormous light-up hanukkiah in Hahatulot Square, with performers waving flaming torches, and concluded the night by exiting the Old City through New Gate, passing by a group of young female IDF soldiers asking an elderly woman in a proclamatory chorus, “can you take a picture of us?”, with their Israeli accents shining through the “r” in picture and “f” in of. Along the way, I stopped outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to surprisingly, at least to me and the other Israelis around me, find it closed. Prior to the pandemic, I had never seen the door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre sealed shut. I was so surprised that I even took a picture. A man behind me said, “Ha-mesiba b’betlehem.” The party is in Bethlehem.
In a way, this year the “party” also “isn’t here”. Even though the dreidels (or in Hebrew: s’vivonim) in Israel will unsubtly remind you that a “great miracle happened here”, as opposed to the dreidels in the Diaspora that proclaim how a “great miracle happened there” in reference to Jerusalem, this “party” lies outside our time in the perpetually imminent, but also unreachable, future and doesn’t refer to a specific place when it is “not here”. For much of the year, we have remained mostly inside our places of residence, ever floating in a timeless limbo between March and the incomprehensible present, waiting for the party to “be here”. Even now, in one of the darkest years of recent memory, we enter into the holiday season to celebrate the light currently in our lives and that which is to come.
In the meantime, may the hanukkiot or Christmas trees (or both!) that we kindle in our houses illuminate our hearts and recognize that lighter days, literally and metaphorically, are in our future. And if you are in Israel, but haven’t gotten to it yet, I highly recommend making a trip to your closest Osher Ad; their selection features a wide variety of affordable Hanukkah decorations, including hanukkiot, that even I couldn’t resist. 39 shekels for a gold-painted Jerusalem hannukiah? Unreal. In any case, I find myself agreeing with Johnny Mathis once again, “put up the tree (and hanukkiah) before my spirit falls again”…or at least before the Israeli government actually decides to go through with some type of lockdown in the coming weeks. Happy Holidays to all!