Tonight is the third night of Hanukkah, a holiday — in the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar — which lasts for eight days and often coincides with Christmas, but not always.
Hanukkah wasn’t particularly festive in my family when I was a girl, or young adult, either. My grandfather would “surprise” my brother and me with new silver dollars — Hanukkah “gelt” — and that was it. I learned that the holiday celebrated the biblical story of the Maccabees’ recapturing the temple in Jerusalem when enough oil for only one day miraculously lasted for eight. But if the synagogue we belonged to had special observances, they weren’t for kids. And my mother didn’t make latkes.
For me, Christmas is synonymous with East Hampton. I never celebrated it until, nestled as a guest in an upstairs bedroom in my mother-in-law- to-be’s house, I tried my hand at creative gift-wrapping. It seems funny that I don’t remember the gifts, but recall cutting and rolling strips of Christmas paper into letters to indicate who the present was for.
The man who was to be my husband had, unlike me, always enjoyed the gifting tradition of Christmas. We brought up our three children with Santa Claus and stockings and lots of presents under the tree, eschewing the religious significance. Friends, whom we met when the children were infants, provided a magnificent Christmas Eve over the years, with smoked salmon and frozen lemon mousse, and twinkling candles, and elaborately iced gingerbread cookies, and party clothes.
I wanted the kids to know about my heritage, however, at least a little. I persuaded my mother to give me her traditional brass Hanukkah menorah, bearing two lions of Judah, in exchange for a modern one she had sent me, and, one year, I showed the kids how to spin a dreidel. Realizing that Hanukkah had evolved to be more like Christmas, as far as gifts were concerned, I made sure they got a small toy each night for a couple of years. (Usually, at least one present under the Christmas tree, for each one, was wrapped in blue-and-white Hanukkah paper, too.)
That five of my grandchildren now celebrate both holidays came almost as a surprise. My sons’ children have maternal grandparents who celebrate Hanukkah. I don’t think they have had a present for each of the eight days of the holiday, but it is Happy Hanukkah at my in-laws’ houses and Merry Christmas at mine.
My daughter’s children, on the other hand, are too young to know anything about my Jewish heritage, and I doubt that the rural Nova Scotia community in which they live takes much note of Hanukkah. Besides, she and my son-in-law intend, first, to explain, and — on a modest scale — celebrate, the traditions of Ethiopia, where both children were born. Chris and I are excited about going to Nova Scotia for Christmas this year and anticipating a jolly time.
When I am there, I plan to ask my daughter if she would like me to pass along that menorah I got from my mother. In their culturally mixed household, this might make a certain, unexpected, poetic sense.
Ethiopia, you might not know, has been a Christian nation since the first century, long before that religion reached Europe. But before the first century, Ethiopia was a Jewish civilization: Indeed, the imperial family of Haile Selassie traced their lineage back to a rendezvous between the Queen of Sheba (Makeda, in Amharic) and King Solomon.
Christmas, according to the Ethiopian calendar, doesn’t happen until January. My own children always bragged to friends that they were lucky to have two winter holidays. Looks like my Nova Scotia grandkids might be getting three.