Scribbler on the Roof
By Ted Roberts
The first night of Chanukah falls on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, so it’s worth paying attention to the many similarities between Chanukah and Christmas:
- They both fall in December.
- They both delight the merchant classes.
- They’re both lighthearted holidays that don’t sufficiently emphasize their religious and historical origins.
- They both love light. Jews light candles. Christians light up evergreen trees.
- They both are followed by a flood of bankruptcy filings by families who have blown the December budget on munificent gifts to kids who will forget their parents’ names, addresses and phone numbers by the time they’re 21.
(“Citibank writes monthly about their new credit card, but not a word from Marvin,” says one of my neglected friends.)
Chanukah used to be a skimpy little holiday, more patriotic than religious. Jewish families feasted on fried potato cakes — latkes — a delightful medley of potato, onion and matzah meal.
Latkes are still de rigueur on Chanukah, followed by long periods of togetherness as the family holds hands, suffers from heartburn and chews Rolaids together.
The Jewish family laps up potato cakes while the Christian neighbors dine on a great, golden goose surrounded by festive delicacies. This menu inequality, and perhaps a disagreement over the origin and arrival date of the Messiah, is all that keeps Christians and Jews from some serious cost cutting with a corporate merger.
In Jewish homes, after the prayers, candle lighting, latke feast and antacid therapy regimen, a long-winded storyteller, like the author, tells the tale of Chanukah: the campaign of liberation against Greek-Syrian masters waged by the Jews of the second century before the common era.
In the old days, kids enjoyed a frugal Chanukah. They usually received a coin each day of the eight-day celebration.
But sometime around the middle of the 20th century, inflamed by their Christian neighbors and their frenzied December generosity, Jews turned Chanukah into an eight-day orgy of gifts. It was a giant step toward economic assimilation and bridge building between the sister religions.
Jews were now also broke in January. Their checks bounced just as well as those of their Christian friends. They could even tell better shopping stories because of the eight-day frenzy of exercising their credit cards.
I remember the scene when I was a youthful Chanukah celebrant. My grandmother, enthroned in the softest chair in the living room, handed out holiday coins to a line of grandkids, nephews and nieces. There was a protocol, as when you were introduced to the queen. You held out your hand as Grandmother reached into her purse and selected your coin.
This was no egalitarian exercise. The coins ranged from quarters to silver dollars. Both behavior and kinship went on the scale. A courteous, well-cleaned-up cousin with clean fingernails could cop a bigger prize than a grandkid who never called grandmother.
The ceremony ended with a long, slow kiss to grandmother’s cheek. It was an obligation that smart kids realized affected next year’s disbursement.
My cousin Arlene, as farsighted as the prophet Elijah, was even smart enough to help cut up her bubbe’s latkes. And that was Chanukah in my day.
Ted Roberts is a writer in Huntsville, Ala.