Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Full of Light

In John Waters' movie Pecker there is a crazy grandma who thinks her doll version of the Virgin Mary keeps trying to say "full of grace". However, since the grandma is not very good at vantriliquism, what escapes from her pursed lips is "full of grease! full of grease!"

That's how I often feel after a good latke binge at Hanukkah. Nevermind that I've abdicated the making of latkes to my non-Jewish husband. The smell of onion, potatoes and grease is so pervasive, it can winnow its way under closed doors and infuse towels and sheets with its eminence. It's the kind of meal you can burp up for days.

I talk about this because every time this year I start on a guilt binge about the Holidays (capitals intended). I grew up in the age of the Jewish family that had a Christmas tree, which morphed into a Hanukkah bush and then totally disappeared. Yet Hanukkah is a poor replacement for or facsimile of Christmas. (Well, DUH, you say).

By dint of its timing, Hanukkah has been subjected to the seasonal humiliation built by America, for America. Like many 'intermarried' couples, we decided to parse and diagram the situation as we've seen fit. That meant that we didn't celebrate Christmas ourselves... we always went to Germany to 'help' my husband's family celebrate while we variously either lit Hanukkah candles at home or schlepped the menorah with us.

This year, we're staying put. Finally. Not by choice, mind you. If we hadn't just bought a house and a car and a washer and dryer, we'd be all over going to Germany. Stocking up on good chocolate and lovely shoes. But this year it's just not in the cards.

And for me, staying home has brought up all sorts of thoughts. Heck, having a home, knowing that we are 'staying put' for potentially the rest of our lives has added a whole new dimension to my philosophical meanderings and led me to interesting tight spots on many issues.

The deal is: I love string lights. I love them. I love funny glass-blown snowmen and pigs and taxi cabs so thin that even breathing on them can cause them to shatter like a lightbulb. Do you see my quandary? I cannot do these things or have these things because they are so totally owned by Christmas.

I love my neighbors' gaudy holiday displays. I can do without the manger scenes, but otherwise, I really do love them. They make me chipper driving home from the store at 5:15 in the evening when it's already pitch-black and raining sideways.

I've been going through these huge contortions on whether or not I think it's ok for us to string white lights around the little tree outside our front windows. I remember growing up that downtown the trees had white lights on them all year round and I loved that illumination. All the little indirect halos and shadows they threw. Can I not have them? Those lights? The lights that are those wonderful glittery night things?


Garrison Keillor has a short piece on Salon.com called "Don't Like Christmas? Get a Life" in which he exhorts:
There are people who feel "excluded" by Christian symbolism and are offended by the manger and the angels and the Child, but there have always been humorless, legalistic people. Complaint is an American art form, and in our time it has been raised to an operatic level. To which one can only say: Get a life. When you go to France, you don't expect a stack of buckwheat pancakes for breakfast or Le Monde to print box scores. You're in France. Now you're in America. It's a Christian culture. Work with it.
In true Keillor fashion, he starts the article in one of his run-on descriptive, windy kinds of ways which sort of lull you into feeling whistful and accepting, then drops that little ditty in for good measure. What? Excuse me?

I mean, I'm all for the gingery cookies that he describes. Singing? Check. Gift-giving? Check. Philanthropy? Check. Little lights? Double check. I'm just not for the Christian part of it.


For however half-assed I always feel about Hanukkah, I've come to realize that it's a false bill of goods that I've been selling myself. Any self-respecting Jew knows that Hanukkah is supposed to be a minor holiday. It's a feisty little holiday about perservering. And, may I add, light.

Yup, folks, you heard it here first. Hanukkah is the festival of lights. We start by lighting one candle, then two, and by the time you get to the eighth night your menorah is so caked with crayola-covered wax that it may just take you until next Hanukkah to scrape it clean. And it's fun. You eat lots of fried stuff, exchange little presents. Not a bad little holiday.

It was never meant to compete with the big dogs. The big dogs are so totally beside the point of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is about the small stuff that builds up. The oil in the temple that was only supposed to last for one day and ended up lasting for eight. The little engine that could. The bottomless reserve when we think the little light is going to go out.


I was reading in the NYT about this prayer book from the middle ages they found and discovered that, like many other books of that time, that the physical book was originally another text alltogether, a palimpsest. Because the materials used to make books were so valuable, instead of pitching them when their circulation went down, those ever-crafty monks would scrape the surface of the vellum and literally scrape off the text and write a new one. (Palimpsest is greek for "rubbed again").

Now they are spending tons of money and using all sorts of great technology to "read" and translate this "lost" text, the text behind the text, for its insight.

Perhaps the same is also true with Hanukkah. There is some elemental truth to the winnowing of days, to the losing of light, which makes us crave it that much more. The impulse is ancient. The technology may be different. All sorts of other things have gotten magnetically attracted to the concept like shiny wrapping and Jesus babies and the like. But the light is really where it's at.

Hanukkah is not some sort of overblown Jewish answer to Christmas. Christmas is the overblown answer to Hanukkah.

Reclaim the string lights!


Nick W. said...

String away, Mama H. Lights are one of the truly wonderful aspects of the Holiday season, and one that doesn't seem particularly tied to Christmas. Though I do rather object to people putting them up before Thanksgiving-- that just seems wrong to me.

I had a number of Jewish friends when I lived in LA, and they all had fun with Christmas-- since many of the people they socialized with worked at a Catholic hospital. They honored Hanukkah-- we got to watch the lighting of the menorah once-- but some also had a Christmas decorations up. No trees, though.

Finding out what Hanukkah was actually a celebration of was quite fascinating. Honestly, Christmas isn't the biggest day for Christians-- Easter is. But something in the combination of weather, short days, and assimilated pagan traditions added into pure old U.S. commercialism has made it a gianormous "thing."

So, how do you like Madison?

Mama H said...

So far, so good. :)