By Laura Seymour
Are the holidays early or late this year? This is the perennial questions asked by most Jews. We don’t have the luxury of “in-stone” dates (like Dec. 25, for example). Rather, the Jewish holidays move around each year. One year we might celebrate Chanukah right after Thanksgiving and the following year, the Festival of Lights could begin on Christmas Eve.
Part of the issue here is that the Jewish calendar is a solilunar calendar; in other words, it tracks the moon’s cycles while throwing in seasonal cycles for good measure. Rosh Chodesh means we change months on a lunar cycle, but the majority of our holidays end up falling in seasonal times. Adding to the fun is that seven times in 19 years, we add a leap-month to catch up (during those years we have Adar I and Adar II).
When the holidays are “late,” as they are this year, it means that the eight nights of Chanukah will have Christmas in their midst. This can be difficult for young children especially to understand: Their gentile friends are celebrating with Christmas trees, wonderful presents and Santa Claus — how can this compete with a Jewish holiday which, while boasting a happy ending, still observes a fairly grim time? Let’s face it — a dreidel, songs and potato pancakes (at least in a young child’s mind) are no match for Christmas festivities, a huge tree or Santa Claus.
Certainly one solution is to “isolate” Jewish kids from gentile kids during this time of year, but to me, this is a non-solution. In the Metroplex, especially, it’s next to impossible to put kids into a “Jewish bubble,” nor would we necessarily want to. Let’s face it, Christmas is a fact of life — rather than ignoring it, or telling our children to ignore it, we need to understand it’s there.
Many Jewish families can go overboard with this issue and turn Chanukah into a “Jewish Christmas” for their kids by going out and spending a lot of money on eight nights’ worth of presents (without attaching any kind of meaning to it). But that’s not what this holiday is all about. It’s about celebration and tradition. It’s possible to build traditions into Chanukah without taking the meaning out of it.
In our family, our tradition is to buy a new chanukiah every year, then light all of the ones we own every night. By the time the eighth night rolls around, our house is ablaze with the warm, wonderful light of many candles. Other families I know collect dreidels, offer different recipes for latkes each night, take time to offer tzedakah or host dreidel competitions. There is no one “right” tradition, just one that feels right for your family.
Traditions do a couple of things: They help unite who you are as a family, and help focus on the values you share. Second, and especially important during this time of year, they help define us as Jews. With positive Chanukah traditions, our children aren’t wistfully longing to celebrate Christmas; rather, they’re eagerly preparing for an important, and meaningful, Jewish holiday. Furthermore, the understanding that this tradition is something that takes place annually means that your children will pass it down to their children, and so on. This is the importance of tradition: L’dor v’dor; from generation to generation.
So this year, take some time to start and build on a Chanukah tradition. In developing and maintaining such traditions, your children will end up with some pretty neat memories, and will have a true understanding of the celebrations at hand.
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.