Life Notes: Holiday Hopes
The Christmas and Hanukah connection

December is a wonderful, slightly crazy month. Two words – holiday season – explain both the wonder and the craziness.

In a few short weeks, I picture you safe and warm in your homes, hopefully surrounded by people you love. I picture beautiful Christmas trees decked out with ornaments and wonderful trimmings. I can’t think of a lovelier image. I hope there is laughter, joy and gratitude in abundance on your Christmas morning.

In Jewish households like ours, I imagine families gathering to celebrate Hanukah, the Festival of Lights — a reminder of glorious freedom and hope. This year, it comes just five days before Christmas.

If I listen hard, I can still hear the sizzle of golden oil frying up batches of potato latkes in my mother’s kitchen. Those latkes are the delicious, crispy pancakes that are the culinary symbol of this holiday.

It seems particularly fitting that these meaningful holidays come in the same month. So many of our other months this year have been scarred with  bitterness on the world stage.

But for these December holidays, we can try to blot out all that and wrap ourselves in warm bathrobes, good food, good company – and pleasure.

Holidays are always pauses on the relentless time-line that keeps us all marching too fast and too far. I know life wasn’t nearly as frenzied “way back when.” But I suspect that every generation says that, and means it.

I also know that we desperately need special days like these to regroup, to reflect on what really matters and to see the faces we don’t see nearly often enough.

I try not to imagine those who are alone for these December holidays, too sick or old or isolated to be part of a family portrait.

In households where someone dear is gone, there will be that terrible ache that doesn’t go away. No matter how many Hanukahs I celebrate in the embrace of a growing family, I still miss my parents.

If only my father, who left us so many Hanukahs ago, could see Danny, the little fireplug of a boy whose dimples remind me of his great-grandpa’s.

This year, as every other, the absence of my mother will be all the more keenly felt – she died on the first night of Hanukah five years ago, and still we lit the first candle because it felt right and important. Even as our tears fell, that first candle glowed.

In your house, you probably have traditions that may not make sense any more, but still remain firmly in place because traditions give us a touchstone to what was.

My friend Joan, who now celebrates Christmas in the Poconos where she and her husband have retired, will surely drag out the Christmas stockings that she made out of red felt and lettered with each child’s name in spangly little stars so long ago.

Her four children, all grown now, are scattered to the winds. Two won’t even be spending the holiday with Joan because it’s the in-law’s year. But Joan will have those stockings hanging because she knows they define Christmas for her in a way that will never change, no matter how much everything else has.

Our pal Jack will insist that his grandchildren arrive at dawn and open their gifts together, creating a crazy jumble of paper, ribbon and shrieks. Everybody else was willing to relinquish that tradition and sleep in. But not Jack. I understand perfectly.

That’s because I’ve dragged out the Hanukah menorah Amy created out of clay with her stubby little fingers. No kindergartener was ever prouder of a crooked, ungainly artifact than this middle daughter. I’ve carried that menorah with us to three homes, packing it as carefully as if it were a priceless treasure plucked from an archaeological dig. To me, it is.

Yes, holidays are absolutely personal, quirky, emotional and laced with the nectar of the past. And isn’t that precisely what makes them wonderful?

December 2011
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