Sunday, December 30, 2007

Chanukkah, Hanukkah, Chrismanukkah

This year, lots of people asked me to explain why everyone spells Hanukkah differently. More importantly, some asked why everyone seems to celebrate it differently.

This year, Ryan and I made a point to light the candles each night (though, I must be honest: we forgot to light them the last night). We were not able to light them at nightfall, which is probably not surprising as we don't tend to do anything the way we're supposed to. We also were not able to attend any services.

But out of any holiday, this one in particular has me intrigued and asking lots of questions, particularly about the Christianization of the Jewish life.

I really don't like the holiday season, mostly because of the rush to buy gifts. Yes, everyone knows that I love to buy gifts, and I love to think of the perfect gift. Finding the perfect gift is my way of communicating to the person: "Yes, I love you and know you almost as well as you know yourself. I listen to you in order to understand you and make you happy."

But in the month of December, we buy out of obligation as much as out of love. We worry whether we have to buy a gift for a certain family member because they might get us something. We worry if our wrapping and bows match. We have to get the gift tags to complete the ensemble.

It gives me pause that this secular mentality, which has become pervasive in Christian life, has seeped into Jewish life, too.

While I'm not excusing Christians for the glutton that is gift-giving, at least gift-giving is rooted in religious tradition. The three wisemen, according to the Christian bible, brought jesus gifts. Yes, I know it is traditional for Jewish children to receive gelt and use it as a wager while playing with a dreidel, a traditional Hanukkah game. But a large part of the gift-giving was done to assimilate into the extensive Christian culture in this country. And, of course, to show your friends and family love and all that jazz.

Jews want their children to not feel left out when their son's or daughter's after-school playmates talk about their wish list and piles of gifts at home. (Anyone remember Ross Gellar on Friends creating the Holiday Aardvark when his son told him of his affinity for Santa Claus?) But it's a slippery slope. Is it OK for me to put up an evergreen with all blue and white ornaments? I can find plenty of Hanukkah tinsel on the Internet after all...

I've read a lot of articles on this, and rabbis of all branches seem split. Some point out that Jews have been adopting other cultures for all of their long history as wanderers. Others say assimilating goes against the very message of Hanukkah when the Jews refused to take up the Greek and Syrian way of life.

Here is an article Ryan and I both read when we were discussing this.

I am not saying one way is right or wrong. Who am I to judge a religion that I am just beginning to practice? But as a relative newbie, I see things with brand-new eyes and I'm filled with all kinds of questions.

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