December means Christmas to Christians worldwide, but the religious holiday can be a difficult time for non-Christians. And though Christmas is not celebrated by some Jews, they have their own December festival in Hanukkah.
One Jewish man relates an experience with his 8-year old daughter who wanted a Christmas tree. "Because we're Jewish, we don't buy Christmas trees. God wouldn't like it," he explained. "But if we don't speak Hebrew when we buy it, he won't know," she retorted.Because of its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah has much more significance in the United States than it does in Israel. It is understandable how a once-minor Jewish holiday is observed in a different manner in countries where Jews are a minority.
The celebration, which begins today, commemorates the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees overthrew the armies of Antiochus. The temple had been defiled by the pagan rituals of the Syrians.
After the victory, the priests had purified their holy temple but there was just a single cruse of oil to burn in the lamp. Miraculously, it was enough to burn for eight nights and the event has been since observed as the feast of lights.
In Israel, the festival is observed by both religious and secular Jews as a great victory by Jewish rebels against overwhelming odds and as a true religious miracle. Rather than giving gifts, money or gelt is given. Menorahs are lighted throughout Israel with a large oil lamp lit by leading rabbis at the Western Wall.
In the U.S., Hanukkah is now the time of lavish gift giving. Joyce Dolcourt, Bountiful, said, "The real traditional time of gifts was the festival of Purim, but because the culture here is so Christian, the emphasis of Hanukkah has become one of gift giving.
"This festival is not a real religious holiday as it commemorates a military victory. It reminds us of the precious freedom of religion," she said. Her sons have been given the dreidls, or four-sided top, that she and her sister played with as children. The tops have the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hay and sh'in inscribed on them to represent the Hebrew, "Nes gadol ha-ya sham" - `a great miracle happened there.' (In Israel, the letter pey represents po, so that the saying reads, "a great miracle happened here.")
In Yiddish the letters stand for "nothing, everything, half and put some in" - the directions for playing the spinning game of the dreidl. All players are given nuts, and whatever letter comes up when the dreidl stops spinning, he will either take all, nothing, half, or have to add to the "pot."
The traditional foods of Hanukkah are latkes (pancakes) and fried doughnuts. One of the songs sung at Hanukkah time is called Mi Yemalell.
Who can retell the things that befell us
Who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage came
to our aid
Hark! At this time of year in
days of yore,
Maccabees the Temple did restore.
And today our people as we dreamed
Through their faith and courage
At the Dolcourt home in Bountiful, 11-year-old Bram and Cameron, 7, have been counting the days, waiting for the first day of Hanukkah. They will help light the many Hanukkah menorahs their family has collected.
For safety, their mother has an electric menorah that can be left unattended. They also have an eight-candle menorah with a ninth candle that is the "helper" or shammus candle used to light the others. One candle is lit each night until all eight are burning. The Dolcourts also have an oil menorah that burns pure olive oil and is representative of the oil lamp of the temple.
As Jack and Joyce Dolcourt gather their sons for the first night of Hanukkah, they will be joining Jews across America in celebrating both freedom from tyranny and the miracle of the lights.