This time of year, I often find myself answering questions about the “December Dilemma.” As an intermarried-child-of-intermarriage, people want to know how I handle this tricky season, when Christmas and Hanukkah compete for our attention, and pine trees threaten to darken our doors. After all, I’ve been experiencing this for two generations myself. Haven’t I learned something in all that time?
I do have an answer, actually, but it’s a radical notion—that in fact, there’s no such thing as the December Dilemma. Or rather, that this is a problem we’ve created for ourselves, out of anxiety and insecurity.
If this is the case, the obvious solution to our problem is to release that anxiety and turn our attention to enjoying our own distinct holiday, to making Hanukkah a resonant, meaningful season. Just as we do with Passover or Sukkot. When we aren’t measuring ourselves against jingle bells and candy canes.
But how do we do that?
Let me tell you a story.
For years I tried to make Hanukkah appealing to my kids. Since they often spend Christmas with their Catholic grandparents, and receive copious gifts as a result, my instinct was to try to match that particular kind of childhood joy. I didn’t concoct a Jewish Santa, but I did spend money. I bought and wrapped loads of presents, filled bowls with gelt and dreidels. I bought twinkly lights shaped like stars of David. I wanted Hanukkah to outshine Christmas in my children’s memories.
You know what? It didn’t work. Not because the presents weren’t appreciated, but because that’s not the point of Hanukkah. That store-bought abundance* didn’t feel organic or authentic to anyone. Eight days is a long time to slog through that brassy sort of cheer, and also, only Santa is Santa. Pale comparisons are just that. No menorah will dim the presence of a tree in the corner, or the inundation our kids feel from the outside world—the endcap displays at Target, the aisles of red and green candy at the grocery store. Every year we all feel a little let down by Hanukkah. Don’t we?
So last year, I asked myself a question—why does this holiday matter? I asked myself what there was to love about Hanukkah. If it isn’t a runner-up week of gifts and gelt, what’s the actual point? I tried to remember what had mattered to me about Hanukkah, as a kid. What were my best Hanukkah memories?
When I did, I found that every single one was a memory of the dinner table or the kitchen. Of my dad grating his knuckles year after year, making latkes. Of my sisters and brothers teasing each other when we unwrapped boring gifts like dried fruit or clothes. Of the smoke alarm going off. Of drinking wine and idly spinning dreidels on a crumb-covered tablecloth, as we caught up with each other’s college-age lives.
You see, the beauty of Hanukkah is this—if we actually celebrate it, it affords us eight consecutive nights to slow down and focus on the little things, the personal, the mundane. Hanukkah forces us to look into each other’s eyes every night for a week, and connect. To wait until the candles have burned down to wash the dishes or check email.
This is a miracle, honestly, in today’s world. What other holiday accomplishes that sort of slowdown? There’s no pressure to perform Hanukkah. There’s no long synagogue service or requirement that you take time off school or work. You don’t have to dress up or make a fancy meal. You only have to spend an hour every night loving your family and friends fully. Being aware of them.
So last year, we did something radical at our house. We opted out of the December Dilemma. We didn’t spend money. We didn’t throw a party. We didn’t travel. We didn’t compete with Christmas at all, and the result was mindblowing. It was actually a little bit painful to register the shock in my kids’ faces when neither my husband nor I hurried away from dinner to make a phone call or wrap up a little work.
We skipped cub scouts and book club that week. We didn’t go the gym. If homework hadn’t been done by dinner, it wasn’t going to get done. For eight nights, we prioritized only each other, and it was moving to see how deeply that resonated with my kids—to see that they totally got it. We played dumb board games and ate popcorn. One night we watched a movie together, and I know it sounds cheesy, but I can’t remember a calmer, happier week in our household. The kids have been talking about it ever since. They can’t wait for this year.
Here’s the thing—you can only lose a battle you choose to fight. Christmas won’t stop being Christmas, whether you have a tree or not. Christmas won’t stop being an abundant overblown season of candy wrapped in tinsel. If the way we measure joy is in candy, Christmas wins every time.
But that’s only one kind of currency, and if we measure joy in calm pleasure, in togetherness, in slowness, in conversation and low-stress fun, Hanukkah resonates differently. It matters. It becomes real.
Think about light—there are fireworks in the world, and then there are fireplaces. Both are illuminating. But they meet different needs. If you measure the cheery glow of a fireplace against the bombastic blaze of fireworks, you’ll be disappointed. But if you stare deep into the hearth, accept it on its own terms, and warm your hands, you can’t help but see its distinct beauty. You can’t help but recognize how much you need it.
*the author would like to recognize that plenty of Christians struggle with this issue too, and that for many people, the real spirit of Christmas has nothing to do with the “holiday shopping season.”