For the Love of all the Winter Holidays

I love the winter holidays, all of them. This time of year reminds feels enchanting and wild, with Hannukah candles at home, Christmas lights in every window in downtown Haifa, and Eid al-Adha fires in the Carmel mountain villages.

I love fire, and my soul makes no distinction between the variants of the different religions in the area. All lights make my heart sing equally. I was saying to my husband the other day that it is the concept of great light being born from the utmost darkness that speaks to me on a very primal level.

To me, the nativity of Christ, the victory over the Greeks, the salvation of Isaac, and the birth of Sol Invictus are simply individual examples of the great, primordial, universal mystery that enlightenment can only be achieved by those who experienced the darkest, coldest, most heart-breaking agonies; that gorgeous creations can be produced from doom and gloom; that passionate ideas are often informed by shadows; and that powerful people are usually those who braved the night and came back wearing the sun on their smile.

Winter was never my favorite season of the year, but I have fond memories of childhood winters with my father playing games with me and my siblings on the carpet, while our mother is roasting food on the fire, or knitting something fabulous.

My father worked in a factory with a strong union that distributed gifts to employee children every Hannukah. Every First Candle my father would come home with a suitcase-sized box of magnificent chocolates and colorful candy, as well as special gifts for every one of us, usually things my parents could not otherwise afford. One year I got a huge set of art semi-professional art supplies; and another year an assortment of fantastic board games. My mother made the best jelly donuts and wonderful hot chocolate. We were on vacation from school, and because it usually rained, we stayed in, spinning dreidels for hours while watching TV. Mostly, the time being sometime in December, it involved imported British and American shows that featured Christmas.

Christmas was a fantastic, outlandish holiday. It was “their” festival, never to be celebrated or marked in any way by respectable Israeli Jews. There were whispers, sometimes, about American Jews who exchange gifts or put up a tree in their house, but then again, American Jews were not really considered respectable.

Nevertheless, I knew all about Christmas. TV taught me about Santa and the elves, gifts that can only be opened on Christmas morning, stockings filled with surprises, turkey dinners, mistletoe kisses, decorated trees, snow and carols, miracles and open churches, and that mysterious magical drink called eggnog.  One year I even insisted on following the instructions given on a particular show for making a Santa figure out of a coke bottle and cotton wool. My mother played along, but insisted we’d call it “Prophet Elijah” and not “Santa Claus”, in an effort to shield me from Christian education. Useless effort, really, because TV did not only teach me about Christmas, it also taught me about Jesus, and how he was born to a virgin, by God.

(My parents, of course, said it wasn’t true; that Jesus was not the son of God at all. His real father was Joseph, and we shouldn’t talk about him at all, or about Christians in general, because they did very bad things to Jews exactly like the Greeks from the Hannukah stories.)

But even though I grew up with the knowledge of Christmas, I only sensed its true magic for the first time as an adult.  When I was 23 years old, I traveled to Germany to visit a friend. It was early December and very cold. Arriving from subtropical Israel with its mild wet season, I was overwhelmed by real winter with its snow and frost, and below zero temperatures. All I wanted was to stay in and keep warm, but once I did go outside, I forgot everything.

The streets were decorated with splendid lights. Enormous Christmas trees were placed in every corner. Vendors with carts sold roasted chestnuts and gebrannte Mandelen (sugared, toasted almonds), and enchanting holiday music filled the air. The town square hosted a Christmas market with trees for sale, gingerbread cookies, Stollen fruit cakes, glühwein (mulled wine), bratwurst, candy apples, cotton candy, and a stunning assortment of festive decorations. A perfume I bought for my friend’s mother was gift-wrapped so lavishly, using such fine and elegant design elements; it changed my personal view of gift-wrapping altogether.  Everything was magical.

That year I also received my first Christmas gifts. It was a strange experience, and while it was nice to be showered with presents, it also made it clear to me that Christmas is indeed “their” holiday, not mine. Hannukah, on the other hand, remains my favorite Jewish holiday to this very day.

I can’t say I care too much for Hannukah’s core concept of national victory over an enemy.  I’m an Israeli, and I have enough of that on a daily basis. What I love is the excellent food, the expressive holiday songs, the ritual use of fire, but mostly, the idea of harnessing light to banish darkness.

My empathy to that idea is also why I love so much the Christmas lights. In the past couple of years, I’ve been living in Haifa, an Israeli city that takes pride in its religious diversity. Every December Christmas the lights come up on every fourth or fifth window, enchanting the air and making my heart sing. Then Hannukah comes and candles are placed on every second or third windowsill, and I think to myself that to me, all winter holidays are particular instances of something bigger, deeper, more encompassing than Judaism, or Christianity.

This is the second year that I celebrate Hannukah with my husband (last year he was still my boyfriend, though). This is a practice we will hopefully share with our children some day. Looking inside myself, however, what I’d really like to hand down to future generations is not so much Hannukah, but the great winter tradition of making light in the dark.

If I ever have a daughter, I’d like to teach her about the dark of winter as well as the dark night of the soul, and give her tools to brighten lives and warm hearts. I’d repeat the old cliché that it’s always darkest before dawn, and teach her to make fire, use fire, and survive fire. We would cook together. Maybe her father would teach her to weld. We would talk about broken hearts and failures, but also about great victories. We would talk about light.

Happy Holidays :)

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