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I was born in the mid-1930s, and was old enough to remember Pearl Harbor Day, the end of World War II, the mourning after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. I am old enough now to have kept track of holiday changes in all the many years since.
When I was a child, Christmas was a public holiday , and Hanukkah was a private, low-key Jewish celebration. I lived in a mixed neighborhood and went to an elementary school where Christmas was IT in December. A big tree, decorated with bells made from the silver and red foil caps on the glass milk bottles delivered — direct to our kitchen doors! – throughout December. Our “real” religion didn’t matter at all; everyone’s mother saved the bottle caps, and we carried them to school, cut them carefully with one stroke to the center and folded the bells, then hung them on the tree on the school’s first floor. We all sang Christmas carols. Jewish kids sang with enthusiasm; we just didn’t sing out on certain words of certain songs. But we enjoyed the singing, and our teachers didn’t mind our omissions – if they even noticed at all. We went to our friend’s homes, saw their wreaths and trees and the gifts piled beneath, and after the holiday we returned to play with their few new toys. That’s just the way it was, and nobody minded. Nobody made fusses about anything. Yes, America was very much a Christian country then, and everybody knew it. That was just the way things were.
In all the years that have passed since, we’ve become a country of diversity, which has brought some inevitable problems. As a child then, it never occurred to me that Hanukkah could be anything else from latkes served by my mother and a visit from grandma, who gave me a small dreidl and 48 pennies out of her worn leather change purse to use to play the game. We lit candles in a tin menorah set on a tray on the dining room buffet; nobody knew we should be putting it on a windowsill, facing outward. In recent years, there have been debates – and sometimes worse! –- about putting religious symbols out in public places: if a crèche is allowed, should a menorah be beside it? And in the schools? No carols – just holiday songs of little significance to either faith.
But truth told: the years have not changed the basics of the two holidays: Christmas is the major religion in December! Hanukkah recalls a historic story of heroism, but in the great scheme of things, can’t compare in relilgiousimportance. That the two often crowd the calendar at or near the same time has elevated Hanukkah to a sometimes gift-giving frenzy in imitation of Christmas, to which the same happened much earlier. We have let shopping and greed take over our faiths, and our good sense.
I wish we could take our children and grandchildren (and great-grands; I already have two!) back to that quieter time of less. I think it would be more – more Christian, and even more Jewish, than what we have today…