Dreidel Roasting on an Open Fire …. by Astrid Amara

I love to learn about different religions and their practises and celebrations so I asked Astrid to write a post about Hanukkah. I have many Jewish friends (and I’m not just saying that) 🙂 I’m probably one of the few Gentiles who celebrates Rosh Hoshanah, Passover, Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays every year because my friends are inclusive and I have even attended a Bris (Brit Milah) or two (that’s the ceremony of circumcision). Unfortunately the Bris was not a highlight. 🙁  

Astrid talks about the  more pleasant aspects of her religion and I invite you to share her memories. 

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I’m not, what you call, a real holiday lover. I don’t celebrate Purim. Or Easter. Or wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, or attend synagogue on High Holidays, or get fireworks on the 4th of July. I barely scrape out a pumpkin for Halloween. And then I  eat all the candy before the kids can show up. 

For father’s day my dad gets a call. For mother’s day my mother gets her birthday present, which is the same week. And I refuse to celebrate Valentines Day in memory of the Valentines Days that I didn’t have a lover and felt left out. 

But there’s something irresistible about the December holiday season. Perhaps it’s the glut of holidays, as a Jewish American. I get Thanksgiving, then Hanukkah, THEN a secular American form of Christmas, and New Years. 

I’m not religious, and so all of these traditions exist independent of faith. They represent heritage, and respect for the message beneath the celebration. Oh and shiny lights and great music and a sense of “home” that no other holiday season creates. 

Hanukkah is interesting that way. Growing up in a community that was nearly 40 percent Jewish, I never thought it was special. It wasn’t strange to say “Happy Hanukkah/Merry Christmas!” to everyone at school as we left for Winter Break. But when I moved to England, I realized that Hanukkah was not mainstream. It wasn’t even normal. I knew one other Jew at my international school. And my school was in a nunnery. It made Hanukkah feel weird and antiquated and sort of secret. 

In contrast, a few years later I moved to Jerusalem, Israel to go to university, expecting some wild and extravagant Hanukkah traditions. Instead I discovered Hanukkah is nothing there. There was hardly a sign in any shop, no racks of greeting cards, or dreidel-themed blue and white wrapping paper. Some gelt, but that was it. 

And I thought, really? It’s not a big deal even here, in the land of the Maccabbees? But Hanukkah in secular Israel, was just another holiday, not THE holiday its been raised up to in the States. Purim is a much bigger deal there, judging by the drunk Chasidic men in the streets and all the children wielding noise makers and plastic hammers.
I then moved to a Muslim country for several years and didn’t get to celebrate Hanukkah OR Christmas. I spent one entire Christmas day trapped in a pit latrine, huddling for warmth from the snow storm outside until my host-family returned. We ate Top Ramen, which, you may be surprised, was actually the best Christmas dinner I could have hoped for in that household. 

pit latrine

And it was at that moment I realized that even though I’m Jewish, I also love Christmas. I love the trappings of it – the music and the decorations and the smells. I love the culturally-forced cheer that, even if it drives you mad, you can’t help but feel. I love not spending it in a pit latrine.
And I loved the one day of it, the build-up to something monumental, which we lack with our eight day tradition. It ALL happens on Christmas, and the day itself is sacred ground when it rolls around. 

So when I finally stopped traipsing around the world and returned home to the Pacific Northwest I made sure to enjoy Hanukkah AND Christmas for what they represent in America — celebrations of light, love, safety, family, and heritage.
And a good excuse to fry potatoes and cover them in sour cream. 

Now I live with a very bad Catholic who loves Christmas. So after we’re done with Hanukkah, he buys the biggest tree he can find and I cover it with doo-dads and baubles and we string colorful LED strings on every surface in the house. It looks like a clown was eviscerated. There’s red EVERYWHERE.
I don’t go for the santas or the angels. I just like the shiny lights and bells. Maybe that’s because I’m Jewish. Maybe there’s no point to all this. 

But it doesn’t matter, because it’s the holidays. I love walking home, when its cold, and seeing my house, lit up like its about to burst in a fiery explosion of rainbow colors, and our tree in the window, inevitably askew, and all our presents wrapped under it. And the dreidel there too. Its become some amalgam of Jewish tradition and Christian tradition that means nothing and somehow also everything.
And when I see the haphazardly-erected trappings of our religiously plural household and country, I can’t help but get warm fuzzies and end up writing holiday romances. Because its hard to forgive a lover during a heat wave, but its easy to see the inner beauty of a person when cold and illuminated by eight candles, or 30,000 watts of Christmas lights.
 

And the cheese-tolerance levels in my bloodstream rise for the holidays, which makes it the perfect time to read those “awwww” and “so sweet” kind of romances, those books that are probably not entirely realistic, but wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the world felt like this? 

So from an otherwise holiday humbug, I wish you all a very (belated) Happy Hanukkah, and a massively Merry Christmas, and of course, a jolly drunken New Years. Thank YOU for making my holidays brighter by reading, and for those writers out there – keep churning out the sickening sweet holiday romance! Because it’s the season to eat well, and celebrate life and love – through fantastical romance, fanciful lighting exhibits, candles, and traditions.
 

Seasons Greetings!

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

10 comments

  • Wonderful post, Astrid!

    I have a similar story. Although I didn’t have to spend Christmas there, when I lived in Japan, everyday I had to use a combo “pit latrine” and shower in a little room about the size of that one. I constantly had to watch when showering, to make sure I didn’t slip and step in the hole. Ughh.

    Like Val, I’ve also been reading your Hanukkah books. They’re amazing!

    Happy Hanukkah/Merry Christmas!

    Reply
  • Great post, Astrid! You are right in saying that Hanukkah isn’t celebrated much in the UK, just, I expect, in the particularly Jewish quarters of some cities. I certainly never came across it until we looked at Judaism during RE lessons at school, and I’ve never seen any shops selling item for Hanukkah, like they do for Christmas.

    I think it’s wonderful that you and your partner have made your own Hanukkah/Christmas traditions!

    Reply
  • Ah,the pit latrine. It brings to mind the “squatter” I finally had to break down and use in a small village in Italy.

    Great article! I was one of the oh-so-proud recipients of “Love Ahead” and wanted to tell you that I greatly enjoyed it!

    Reply
  • Astrid
    This is such a wonderful post and although I’m not Jewish it reminds me of traditions when I was a child.

    Thank you again for doing this – I guess everyone is out shopping or too lazy to comment because there are almost 200 hits on the post.

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

    Reply
  • Tam: *my daughter and I recognize Hanukkah with a huge feast of latkes. Well, I’m up for any excuse to eat good food*

    That’s the spirit! No need to be Jewish to enjoy a good plate of latkes, just like there’s no need to be Christian to put 14,000 lights in your living room! (although my dog seems to groan now every time I turn them on – too much for her, maybe??)

    Val: Thank you! And I agree, spiritual traditions are fascinating and revealing, even if you take the religious component out of them. Nothing represents humanity more than our burning need to develop and maintain rituals…

    Reply
  • I love not spending it in a pit latrine.

    I’ll bet! 😀 I guess we readers can’t help fixating on your pit latrine story, but really, like Tam said, the whole post is great! I grew up in an atheist family and consequently have always been completely drawn to and fascinated by spiritual traditions.

    I’m also totally enjoying your Hanukkah books. After Jen gave Love Ahead Expect Delays that awesome review, I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it and Holiday Outing and I’m almost done with the very good Carol of the Bellskis I love your sense of humor!

    Reply
  • Beautiful post Astrid. You need to come and string some lights at my house. I’m not feeling the motivation this year, although we do have a lovely tree.

    Where I grew up in Western Canada, relatively north, I don’t think there was a Jewish person within several hundred miles. I had no clue what Hanukkah was until I went away to university. Now I live in a much more culturally diverse city (not hard to achieve LOL) and my daughter and I recognize Hanukkah with a huge feast of latkes. Well, I’m up for any excuse to eat good food. 🙂

    I have heard that Hanukkah is not the big deal in Judaism that non-Jews make it out to be, but I guess whatever works for each person in their life. Have a wonderful Christmas and I would suppose after a Christmas spent in a pit latrine anything is a step up after that. 🙂

    Reply

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