Christmas non-compliance--I'll call it Non-Christmas--took up far more time and energy than Hanukkah. In the Non-Christmas season, Christmas gifts could be given, parties attended and cookies brought, but all efforts had to be made to ensure that the wrapping paper, party outfits, and gift cookies contained as little Christmas symbolism as possible. Frosty the Snowman was frequently a safe bet unless he was wearing some sort of Christmas-tree scarf; manger scenes were to be avoided at all costs. The Christmas windows at Macy's could be admired, but Christmas TV specials were forbidden.
During Non-Christmas, if appropriately talked to, my mother would refrain from coming to school with a menorah and Hanukkah gelt and doing something embarrassing, but under no circumstances would she or my father consider a Hanukkah bush. (The year I demanded one, repeatedly, while pushing my mom on some hard details--"if there's no Santa for Jews, is there a Santa for Christians or is every kid at my school getting lied to?"--was the year she spontaneously began claiming that Hanukkah presents were brought to us by a giant dreidel named Jack. There were many holes in the story of Jack; for instance, although Mom denied that Jack had reindeer or came down the chimney, she was unable to propose a viable alternative Jewish transit system.)
Forget about keeping up with Christmas; Hanukkah couldn't even keep up with Non-Christmas. To this day I cannot remember the correct words to the psalm said on Hanukkah, only the version we made up during breaks at Hebrew school: "Ma otzur yeshua te/My father bought me a Christmas tree/tikkon beit tefila te/the rabbis took it away from me." This is because Hanukkah is just not as momentous as Christmas. It's one of the least important holidays in Judaism. It's a minor holiday--not mentioned in the Torah, and given all of five pages in the Talmud, which has hundred-page volumes on Sukkot and Passover. Hanukkah has taken on an inflated importance in America because of the need to fill that long, two-and-a-half-month void with something other than Non-Christmas. So we give Hanukkah gifts and go Hanukkah shopping and talk about the great miracle of Hanukkah, all of which is largely absent from Israelis' celebration of Hanukkah.
The miracle that American Jews consider to be the focal point of the holiday--when Judah Maccabeus' army reclaimed the Temple, they found only enough pure oil to light the Temple lamp for one day, but it lasted eight days--is actually only mentioned once as an aside in the Talmud. In Israel, it's not emphasized. Israelis focus on the idea that the Maccabees were able to reclaim the Temple only because, against all odds, their tiny army conquered the enormous Hasmonean one. Israelis think of Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, a historical precedent for more recent military victories over mighty enemies.
Free from the need to keep up with a different holiday season, Israelis ease into winter quietly. For some reason this surprised me. I expected at least a perfunctory nod to the relentless tinny jingle of Christmas, but November came and went with nary a poinsettia plant in sight. I was overcome with an enormous sense of relief; there would be nothing to ignore or participate in half-heartedly. I wondered about the Christian pilgrims who had descended on Jerusalem on orders from the pope. Were they secretly relieved, too? Or were they freaking out in their hotel rooms, calling American customer-service lines and asking to be put on hold to listen to Christmas carols? I tried to repress the mean-spirited urge to enthusiastically wish them a happy Hanukkah.
As the days closed in earlier and earlier, menorahs appeared in windows, on the street in glass boxes and in shelves carved into the walls of some buildings. The Talmud says you should light the menorah from the time it gets dark until the last people leave the market. Maybe that's so you can remind as many people as possible of the miracle of Hanukkah. Or maybe it's an effort to fend off the hollow loneliness of winter--to remind people that life--on the streets, on the trees--has not stopped, just moved inward.
A few nights into Hanukkah, I went on a hike through the desert. As I walked, my pupils dilated, drawing in more and more moonlight. I could see, but not with normal depth perception. The ground, pocked with stones, shadowy with foliage; and the sky, smudgy with clusters of stars and soft clouds, seemed to be on the same plane.
The Sfat Emmet, an 18th-century Jewish commentator, said that the reason it gets dark in winter is so we will search out lights that are normally hidden. The still silvery light in the desert, the fragile flames lining the streets of Jerusalem, seemed like those sorts of lights, only visible when the streets and sky quiet down enough.
Two weeks later it was Christmas Eve and also Shabbat. Having expended no effort on Non-Christmas, having exhausted my desire to scream at Texan evangelicals, "Sorry suckers! There are no balsam firs in this part of the world!" and finally fully convinced that there would be no surprise elf parade I would be forced to participate in, I felt for the first time in my life that I might like to celebrate Christmas. So did most Americans I knew, who were all working through long-repressed Christmas neuroses. ("Karen Klieger brought candy canes from America," someone whispered to me in December, giggling giddily, guiltily, as though Karen Klieger had brought the necessary ingredients to cut a fine batch of heroin.)
After Shabbat dinner, we set out looking for a mass. We walked through the empty streets of the old city to one of the main churches. The hallway opened up onto an interior stone courtyard full of people holding single candles and singing Christmas songs in German, French, and Spanish. More and more of my Jewish friends arrived. By the time they started singing "Silent Night" in English, at least a quarter of the people there were American Jews, who had all probably spent their youths either asking to be excused from Christmas pageants or mouthing the words to Christmas carols.
I listened to the words, and it occurred to me that the song was not about Charlie Brown but about the desert, calm and bright, that I had been hiking in a few weeks ago, which was only a few miles from Bethlehem. The image of Mary deep in that darkness, "pregnant with holiness," as St. John the Cross rhapsodized, did not seem entirely separate from the images of Hanukkah; the pure flame that burned with an unexpected power, the surprise access to a holiness thought to have been lost entirely.
Israel had been in a drought for four months. The highway was lined with dead crops and withered, gray olive trees. For the last month, we had added to our daily prayers an injunction for rain. Three times a day we had prayed for rain--considered a sign of God's mercy--and that night, as I was wondering if we would be shot down for going to church on Shabbat, buckets of warm rain sloshed over the stone courtyard. The Jews looked at each other in amazement. Everyone moved under the roofs around the perimeter of the courtyard and kept singing while the rocks went slick, and the candlelight reflected in the rocks flickered wildly.
There is a Midrash (a story the rabbis tell about the Bible) that explains why pagan groups had an eight-day festival with bonfires around the same time as Hanukkah. The rabbis say these festivals arose for the same reason Hanukkah did: "When Adam saw day getting gradually shorter, he said, 'Perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion.' He fasted for eight days, hoping to repeal the death sentence, but after winter solstice when the days started getting longer, he realized, 'This is the world's course,' and had eight days of festivity." The Midrash says, "He fixed the [festivals] for the sake of heaven, but they appointed them for idolatry."
The Midrash suggests that there is something essential and universal about creating small lights in the depth of winter (indeed, painted in broad strokes, that's what Kwanzaa, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, and pagan solstice celebrations all do). It also suggests that the story by which you understand the seasonal withdrawal of light and the miracle of its imminent renewal is not as important as whether the festival is in the name of heaven or in the service of something entirely different.
I am not trying to suggest that the enormous differences in the stories told by different religions are meaningless or negligible. And I question to what extent Christmas in America takes its cues from its own story--of a man who said you should give everything to the poor, who kicked all the people who were buying and selling out of the Temple courtyard in an effort to keep it holy.
I claim only my own Christmas miracle, that once, on the night that marks the birth of the most major, least bridgeable gap between Jews and the enormous chunk of the world that is Christian, what felt more powerful was the light in the dark of the desert that bore us both.