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How Hanukkah survives in the world of Christmas

Journal Correspondent

Max Liftman, during World War I in France.

NOVEMBER 29, 2018 – Once Hanukkah was dreidels and latkes and candles, oh my.
Now it’s wrappings and ribbons, and pricey gifts to buy.

Obviously we are talking about the holiday of Hanukkah today, not the way I grew up. Then, it was a simple little celebration that included lighting candles for eight nights, chanting the appropriate prayers over those candles, and handing children small amounts of Hanukkah gelt.
Somehow, when we weren’t really looking, the commemoration of the victory of a small group of Maccabees over the Greek army and the miracle of the holy oil that lasted eight days until new oil arrived to rekindle the eternal flame has morphed into a holiday that challenges Christmas.

When I was growing up in Mattapan, Hanukkah was definitely a private family holiday. Hanukkah gelt in small denominations was the norm, with something special perhaps from a grandparent or other close relative. As for Hanukkah cards, I’m sure as kids we designed our own. I can recall drawing a picture that only parents would praise. And our first scribbles were our names printed in large letters that took up most of the paper.

It was definitely done with love and accepted that way. Each night my brother and I would light the candles, recite the prayers with help from my father, and watch as the candles burned down. I recall how proud I was when I learned the prayers in Hebrew and we sang “Maoz Tzur,” our “Rock of Ages” that later appeared on the back of the boxes of Hanukkah candles. I loved that song; I always felt such pride when we sang it in Hebrew and then in the English translation, emphasizing our victory at the temple in Jerusalem.

Although the origin of the music is unknown and perhaps came from some folk tune, the words were written in the 13th century. Those words highlight this particular Jewish victory, just one of the many challenges our people have overcome with God’s help. Sadly, people seem to think “I Have a Little Dreidel” and Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” are the only ones written for the holiday.

Though we knew as kids that Hanukkah was our holiday and not Christmas, I felt it was OK to attend the annual American Legion Christmas party. My dad, a veteran of World War I who fought on the battlefields in France, belonged to Post 154 in Upham’s Corner in Dorchester. There was one other Jewish member, and his daughter and I were the only Jewish kids to leave the party with a Christmas present given by a Santa whose suit left much to be desired.

When my boys were old enough to question why Santa Claus never left any gifts for them even though we had a fireplace he could come down, I had to explain there was no Santa, and I made them promise never to spoil Christmas for other children. Instead of feeling sorry for them, my children were envied because they got gifts for eight nights.

Little did the other kids know that only the first and the last nights were really big presents, with educational gifts or books in the middle. The other nights might have been PJs, a robe, socks, sweaters, and maybe a really nice shirt.

As for decorations, it seems that when folks moved to the assimilated suburbs from Chelsea, Lynn, Malden, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, they started decorating for Hanukkah with the same enthusiasm families decorated for Christmas. I think that’s why electric menorahs became popular — they could sit on the window sill for passersby to see. When we were entertaining guests during the Christmas/Hanukkah season, I would tell my friends that it was easy to identify our house; it was the only one without holiday decorations. That continued until my friends at Currans Flowers in Danvers decided that would never do. Each year they would leave a beautiful outdoor arrangement with a blue and white theme on my front porch.

As a longtime member of the Danvers Garden Club, I always help the members get ready for the annual greens sale. I recall the year they added gorgeous blue bows to the Kissing Balls for those who wanted to either hang them that way or give them as gifts to Jewish friends. Several years ago, Kane’s Flower World included blue poinsettias along with the many beautiful red and white ones folks usually buy. The blue also became a decorator plant that fits in nicely in certain settings.

Hallmark has certainly jumped aboard the Hanukkah train. In addition to Christmas cards, there are lots of Hanukkah cards and yes, even cards that wish folks a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah at the same time.

So is this a bad thing? Not really; not when children and adults learn about each other’s religions and hopefully respect each other. Chabad comes to different towns like Danvers and places a large Hanukkah Menorah on our library lawn. Each year the number of non-Jewish participants increases at the candle lighting ceremony ,and everyone enjoys the latkes and sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts) and hot chocolate.

As the Psalm says: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers. She can be reached at msfearer@gmail.com.

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