Keeping the Ha in Hanukkah
Happy Hanukkah to all my Hebraic friends and family out there, and even to those of you who are not. Yes, that’s right, I’m going to impose my wishes of a happy holiday that you may or may not celebrate, and I think I’m justified in doing so. No, not for the reasons you hear shrill, uptight women in pantsuits screaming on about on Fox News (I assume). I’m not talking about that prideful “I am going to wish you the seasons greeting that I want to receive, and you can just take it and not be such a whiner about it if you think differently” or the “as a society, we need to put the Christ back in Christmas” or anything like that.
My justification for wishing you a happy holiday (that you may not celebrate) comes from the same reason that I myself found to celebrate the holidays and continue to keep them in my own life, even if I have not exactly embraced the canonical mythos of the supernatural ramifications of that celebration. It’s that I want you to have happiness, and maybe in a way that thoughtfully honors history and tradition.
Having been religiously educated, last night I performed all of the rites and rituals with a historical perspective, and explained to my girlfriend last night what each and every part of the Hanukkah tradition comes from and why those values might still be relevant today. I explained to Janet that, as with all Jewish holidays, we start by lighting the candles to indicate that the sun has set and that the holiday (which begin at night in the Jewish tradition) has officially begun. As I began lighting the candles and saying the prayers, I explained that Hanukkah means “rededication” in Hebrew, and is so designated because of the Jewish recapture of the holy temple after having been desecrated by the Assyrians (Syrian-Greek) in the 2nd Century B.C.(E). The Jewish troops were said to have won a miraculous victory over the much more powerful surrounding forces, and when they got to their temple, they were trying to celebrate Sukkot (which they had missed through the course of the battles), and such a celebration requires the temple’s menorah (a seven-pronged candelabra) to be lit for 8 days (when you include Sh’mini Atzeret) with only pure, religiously sanctified oil. Hence the story of the miracle of the oil that burned for 8 days and enabled the Jewish re-conquerors to celebrate the holiday they had missed, and hence the nine-pronged hannukiyah (one candle is there to light the others).
Other contextual explanations could have included that the dreidel traditionally includes the first Hebrew letters for each word in the sentence “A Great Miracle Happened There*” (*Substitute “Here,” if in Israel), which mostly refers to the miraculous battle, but the oil as well. Really, the miracle of the oil is more directly honored by the tradition of eating of fried foods like latkes and doughnuts, but a tradition is really only important to the extent that it provides meaning or other context to one’s life.
And that’s really the moral of this story of Hanukkah celebration: traditions need not have the most unimpeachable pedigree in order to have meaning in one’s life. Valentine’s Day may not have come from anything more than a Hallmark executive’s scratch-pad, but that doesn’t mean that its existence doesn’t prompt people to do nice things for one another (though it can create anxiety and stress if people don’t have the same level of importance ascribed to the same tradition). And regardless of whether or not I believe in the Hanukkah story or whether I care about whether some deity cares about whether or not I believe, the point is that I can create a historical and cultural connection between myself and tradition, and link myself to that people, and feel some joy and unity in the simple fact of celebration and appreciation for what one does have in life.
As a younger person, I think that too often I felt like those “Gotcha!” moment of finding some fault or inconsistency in a tradition were sufficient to invalidate its meaning to me. But those were Pyrrhic victories. The synthesis of belief and skepticism is instead to understand and appreciate why the traditions developed in the way they did, examining what values those traditions fostered, and finding a way to emulate whatever could still work to promote the values that you would like to see in the world. It doesn’t matter what religion you were born into; it matters how your actions (and traditions) in this world get you where you want to go and turn you into the person you want to be.
Apparently, emulating my elementary school teachers instills in me the value of sappiness.