A Month-Long Hanukkah
by Joshua Hammerman
from the Stamford Advocate
Welcome to December, which for many Jews, especially children, heralds the so-called "December Dilemma," that annual uphill battle against the pervasive, domineering cultural crescendo of all things Christmas. Typically, the greatest ally in this fight has been that once-minor but now trendy festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the triumph of the Jewish spirit against the forces of assimilation. Jews have been able to match those Twelve Days of Christmas with our Eight Crazy Nights, pit menorah against mistletoe, watch dreidels twirl against the tinsel, our lights against their lights, the blue and white against the green and red.
It's not a fair fight, especially with regard to the songs, although if you disqualify those Christmas classics written by Jews, things get interesting.
This year presents an unusual complication. Hanukkah began on the evening of Dec. 1, far closer to Thanksgiving than Christmas. By the time Santa starts his Elijah-like jaunt from house to house, Hanukkah will have been over for more than two weeks, the last bits of wax will have long disappeared from menorahs in Jewish homes and even that pervasive smell of sizzling potato batter will be long gone.
The lunar Hebrew calendar is 354 days long, so, given the 11-day difference between 354 and 365, Jewish holidays typically occur 11 days "earlier" each Gregorian year. The ancient rabbis were also brilliant mathematicians, and in their desire to keep festivals seasonal, they devised a scheme whereby an entire leap month is added seven times during each 19-year cycle. This way, Passover can't occur in the summer, Rosh Hashanah in the winter -- and Hanukkah will almost never occur before Dec. 1.
Since 1950, the first day of Hanukkah has fallen in November exactly five times, most recently in 2002. Two other times (1972 and 1983), the holiday has begun on Dec. 1. The next time it begins this early will be in 2013, when Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving, thereby creating a "November Dilemma" for Jews pondering whether to stuff the turkey with potato latkes and replace cranberry sauce with apple.
By contrast, Hanukkah has coincided with Christmas four times during the past decade alone, most recently in 2008. Incidentally, the holiday's forays into January are just as rare as those extending back into November, just five times since 1950.
My interest in this is very personal. My father was born on the first day of Hanukkah in 1918, a rare year when the first night of Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving, and he died on the last day of Hanukkah in 1979, which just happens to be the most recent time the holiday ended on New Year's Day. Plus, our last name, in rough translation, means Maccabee.
But this dilemma raises questions that go far beyond my own family. What should Jews say when well-intended shopkeepers wish us a "Happy Hanukkah" on Christmas Eve, weeks after our holiday has ended? Do we return those unwanted Wiis and Barbie dolls during those non-existent "after Hanukkah sales," or do we dare hold onto them until Dec. 26, when the prices really go down? Without Hanukkah to fall back on, how do we resist the Yuletide onslaught on television and in our schools? Is it possible to add a few weeks onto Hanukkah on a one-time-only basis?
I suppose that with the Christmas season now beginning sometime in October, there's nothing so wrong about letting Hanukkah be extended a few weeks in the other direction, especially since that will enable Jews and their neighbors to share this season of good will in a manner that respects diversity rather than demanding homogeneity.
So by all means, wish me a Happy Hanukkah all month long. If that legendary oil could miraculously burn for eight whole days, what's another sixteen? The ancient rabbis instructed Jews to increase the light each night in order to spread the joy and publicize the miracle. No one ever said that we have to stop at eight. In fact, Jewish law states that the Sabbath can be extended far beyond its natural conclusion on Saturday night, even until Tuesday. So let Hanukkah linger as well, even if only in the well wishes of neighbors.
In the spirit of Jerry Herman's song from "Mame," "We Need a Little Christmas," another Yuletide classic with a Yiddish soul, maybe this year we should sing, "We a Little MORE Hanukkah," enough to last clear to the end of the month.
Let's keep those flames burning, all December long -- and even beyond. During these trying times, we all could use a little more light.
Joshua Hammerman is rabbi at Temple Beth El in Stamford