Every kid, no matter their cultural background, loves games and treats. So when I stopped by my son's Grade 1 and 2 split class this week to explain Hanukkah traditions, I arrived bearing dreidels (a spinning top game), gelt (chocolate coins) and sufganiyot (doughnuts).
I even brought our Minecraft menorah.
But here's a little secret about Hanukkah -- there's not much more to it. Which is why our family celebrates Chrismukkah.
If not for its proximity to Christmas, nobody would pay the minor holiday of Hanukkah much mind. It's mostly a big deal because North American Jews got tired of their little kids whining about Santa.
Hanukkah isn't even in the Bible. The roots of the holiday are recounted in the two Books of the Maccabees, part of the non-canonical scriptures known as the Apocrypha which Jews banished back in the day (though Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not Protestants, consider it canon).
The story, as usual, is about how our ancestors overthrew their oppressors -- in this case, Greek-run Syria. Judah Maccabee led a religious insurgency between 167 and 164 BC that eventually saw his Hebrew holy warriors reclaim Jerusalem from Antiochus, a Seleucid king who banned Judaism in an attempt to Hellenize the Israelites and get them to pray to Zeus.
If not for its proximity to Christmas, nobody would pay the minor holiday of Hanukkah much mind.
Everyone can appreciate the defeat of a colonial ruler who forbids local beliefs and customs. But what's less known nowadays is that the Maccabean revolt arose out of a Jewish civil war between rural fundamentalists and urban elites.
As Haaretz recounts, it began as "Judas and his band of rebels staged guerrilla warfare against Hellenized Jews." Yes, they did eventually defeat their Greco-Syrian occupiers, but they also killed a lot of Jews who weren't Jewish enough.
As a cultural but non-religious Jew who married a lapsed Catholic, the Maccabees would not have been fond of me. So this part of Hanukkah is problematic.
It was way back when, as well. The holiday's famous miracle of the oil was actually introduced centuries later, by rabbis who may have wanted to gloss over the earthly internecine struggle.
This story, now symbolized by the lighting of the menorah and eating of fried foods, is that when the Maccabees retook the temple in Jerusalem they discovered only one day's worth of holy oil. Yet it burned for eight days, the amount of time it took to press and purify more. That's it.
So even ignoring the political baggage, Hanukkah's miracle pales next to the biblical Bonnaroo that is Passover, the best Jewish holiday, which recounts the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. It begins with mass enslavement and baby Moses floating down the Nile, where he's found and adopted by Pharaoh's daughter before leading to the burning bush, 10 plagues, parting of the Red Sea (!) and receiving of the Ten Commandments.
Now those are some miracles.
Christmas, of course, also only has the one miracle. But the virgin birth of the son of God is a biggie and it's bolstered by the addition of a jolly, gift-giving, sleigh-riding secular Santa.
It would've been cruel and unusual punishment if all our classmates got Christmas except us.
I grew up as one of the few Jews in my hometown, so it would've been cruel and unusual punishment if all our classmates got Christmas except us. The town was so small that my acting teacher dad, despite being Jewish, was enlisted to play Santa down at the Crescent Beach community centre.
At the time, he explained his red suit and white beard by claiming he worked for St. Nick. I didn't even have to write letters to Santa -- Dad literally called my wish list in to the North Pole.
But we had Hanukkah, too. We lit the menorah, said the prayers, spun the dreidels, ate the latkes and opened up presents for both holidays.
In other words, we celebrated Chrismukkah long before The O.C.'s Seth Cohen gave it a name in the teen-soap's iconic 2003 episode, "The Best Chrismukkah Ever."
The Death Cab-loving high-school hipster described his made-up superholiday as "eight days of presents, followed by one day of many presents," which sounds like a great reason to celebrate -- but which a fun-loving writer on Forward.com called "greedy."
In a take-down titled "Why I Hate Chrismukkah and So Should You," the author also compared it to a spork: "The reason that this highly practical spoon-shaped eating utensil with short tines at the tip has not become a favourite is because it's a compromise. Neither here nor there. It's indecisive. It takes good parts of both fork and spoon and ends up as satisfying as neither. Like Chrismukkah."
For us, Chrismukkah is the perfect way to bring both parental holiday traditions together.
But at least he has a sense of humour. In 2004 the New York Catholic League and New York Board of Rabbis released a joint-statement declaring Chrismukkah "insulting" to Jews and Christians. In 2011, Jewish parenting website Kveller.com posted an article arguing "Actually, You Can't Celebrate Hanukkah AND Christmas" because apparently we shouldn't be celebrating either holiday "in a cultural, not religious way."
But modern holidays are structured to give people a choice in how how they celebrate them. It's why Christmas has Santa and Easter has an egg-laying bunny despite marking the birth and death of Jesus.
For us, as cultural, not religious people, Chrismukkah is the perfect way to bring both parental holiday traditions together. As The O.C.'s co-creator Stephanie Savage told The Hollywood Reporter this week, "It's about inclusiveness. We were surprised by how many people told us this is how they celebrated but didn't have a name for it."
In my son's class I focused on the fun Hanukkah traditions because I remember feeling different as a Jewish kid, forced to stand out in the hallway while the class recited the Lord's Prayer. I wanted Emile to be proud of the minority side of his bi-cultural background as his classmates gleefully spun their dreidels (shouting "gimmel means gimme all!") and devoured their menorah-stamped chocolate coins.
I explained why Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights, how the candles symbolize pushing back against the darkness and the lesson we should draw from the holiday about respecting the cultures and beliefs of others.
It helps our interfaith family celebrate ritual, tradition, family and, yes, many presents.
And I also told them that Hanukkah coincidentally starts on the same day as Christmas Eve this year, but that we have always celebrated Chrismukkah because that lesson of inclusiveness comes through in our combination of both holidays.
The name made them giggle because they don't know what a Seth Cohen is and because it sounds like a pretend holiday. But what's real is that it helps our interfaith family celebrate ritual, tradition, family and, yes, many presents.
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