Christmas around the World
Once upon a time in America, the holiday season was defined by roast turkey, cranberries, gifts and a decorated evergreen tree, and bracketed by two holidays: Thanksgiving and New Year, with Christmas taking center stage.
In those days, in what now seems like the Age of Innocence, most people shared common, Christian-oriented traditions. If you talked about tree ornaments, everyone automatically knew what you meant. If you talked about a nativity set, ditto.
It was a good time, and a prosperous time for many, but limited in its imagination and totally predictable. Some people still prefer it that way. Others are delighted to see the new, ethnically diverse face of modern America, which puts the menorah alongside the lighted Santa, or Chikala dolls from Native American custom alongside gingerbread men and women.
But let’s go back to the Menorah, which the Jewish people take out this time of year to celebrate Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the single Jewish holiday that doesn’t appear in the Hebrew Bible (a sacred book organized into three main categories; the Torah, Prophets and Writings).
This holiday, known as the Festival of Lights (and also as the Feast of Dedication), celebrates the win by the Jewish army over the Greeks and the subsequent purification and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C., after its occupation by gentiles, or non-Jewish people.
To purify and rededicate this structure, tradition said the Jews had to have a light which would burn for eight days. Unfortunately, they had only enough lamp oil for a single day at that time, so when the lamp continued to burn for a full eight days it was considered a miracle.
The nine candles in the Menorah represent the eight days during which the lamp mysteriously burnt, with one candle in the middle used to light all the others, one by one, and known as a “Shamash,” (in Hebrew, the servant).
Hanukkah is, unlike some other Jewish holidays, which are devoted to teaching, learning and meditation on the law (Torah), a true celebration and a time of great joy, involving feasting, an exchange of gifts, and a feeling of pleasurable renewal which is similar to our New Year.
Part of the good feeling comes from the variety of delicious (if unfamiliar) recipes served during the holiday – many of which have found their way into American cuisine as well. For example, latkes, which are grated raw potatoes seasoned with onions and combined with salt and matzoh meal (a special form of bread crumbs), and then fried. (When my mother made these, she called them “potato pancakes,” and always forgot the applesauce; go figure). The use of extra oil during the holiday is also a nod to the ancient oral tradition of a time when there was not enough oil to keep a lamp burning.
Once this hi-carb Hanukkah offering hits your digestive tract, you will veg out as contentedly as a California cow! Add the small powdered-sugar donuts called Sufgenoit and you won’t feel any pain until New Year’s. Just don’t forget presents; small chocolate “coins” wrapped in gold foil called “gelt,” and larger gifts as well. Hanukkah is a time for sharing good fortune.
This year, Hanukkah begins on Saturday, December 8 and ends on Sunday, December 16. Please don’t bring in the holiday with Gefilte fish – one of the few Jewish foods that slid into fame by mistake! But do enjoy lots of tasty, nutritious Tarator; yogurt and cucumber salad, which tastes even better on the second day, if you can hide enough to age it that long.
Next week, in honor of our Hmong and Vietnamese transplants, we will go to Southeast Asia and check out some truly surprising traditions.