I remember thinking years ago that it seemed almost too good to be true that Christians and Jews each have a wonderful holiday in December. Both celebrations brighten up the darkest days of the year with beautiful lights, and both brighten our spirits with the sharing of gifts, especially for the children. Even the first two letters of the holiday are identical — “CH.”
Perhaps like most everything else in life, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Let’s start with that similar opening “Ch.” In the word “Christmas”, it is pronounced like “K”.” And, if you’re not Jewish, you might think it is pronounced like “H” in the word “Chanukah.” Oh, how we Jews wish it were.
But it’s actually the Hebrew letter Chet, and it’s almost impossible to pronounce correctly if you weren’t born into a culture that uses the Semitic alphabet, as both Israeli Jews and all Arabs do.
If you want to try to pronounce the opening sound of “Chanukah” properly, just pretend that you have a particularly stubborn glob of mucus lodged in your throat. Now, try to expel it with gusto, and that’s the exact sound of the first syllable of our holiday. Please do not try this experiment in public unless you are wearing an N95 mask. This is why most English-speaking Jews gave up and decided we’d spell it “Hanukkah,” since most of us are not expert phlegm-expellers.
And it’s also not really true that both Christmas and Hanukkah have always emphasized gift giving. It is a fact that in Europe, gifts were being exchanged on Christmas a thousand years ago. But giving a gift on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah is quite new. Here in the U.S, the tradition goes back no further than about 1945. Though giving money in coins (or gelt, the Yiddish word) has always been part of Hanukkah, the gift giving is, as unlikely as this seems, the result of the Holocaust.
After all that we Jews suffered as a result of the Nazi “Final Solution” of the gas chambers, historians tell us that Jewish parents, loving their children so much, did not want them feeling sad about missing out on the joy of Christmas gift exchanging, so they changed the emphasis of the holiday to giving and receiving presents. It’s easy to make fun of the stereotypical Jewish ‘helicopter parent,’ but in fact, the extreme closeness of most Jewish parents to their children is uplifting. I love this quotation from our Talmud: “When you teach your children, you’re also teaching your children’s children and their children.” We Jews are bound together by our eternal love of future generations.
In my case, Christmas taught me a valuable insight, not about Hanukkah but rather about Judaism’s two most important holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For adults, these holidays are about meditating on our relationship with God and asking forgiveness for our sins of the past year so that God will inscribe us in His Book of Life, which is sealed on Yom Kippur.
As a child, I originally thought of these two holidays with some trepidation. I envisioned God judging my deeds and deciding whether I was worthy of another year of life. My little mental picture of God was of a stern supernatural figure with a long white beard, and, in my mind, he wasn’t just old but downright Ancient. In other words, I probably thought of him as about ten years younger than I am today.
I couldn’t get this scary image of a remote, behavior-judging God out of my mind until I was about eight years old. I was watching a television show in late December. It was Mitch Miller’s Christmas Special. Miller was a perky choral conductor famous for his sing-alongs, so there on the screen were the words of the Christmas songs that his choir was singing.
I perked up when I read the words to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” It opens with all the kiddies watching out for Santa. And then came those immortal lyrics that gave this Jewish child a true epiphany: “He’s makin’ a list/ Checkin’ it twice/ Gonna find out/ Who’s naughty and nice.” Suddenly that frightening Old Testament God with the ancient face and somber gray beard — with the power of life and death over me, based on my deeds — was replaced in my young and foolish mind with a twinkling old jolly fat fellow with a white-as-fleece beard. Better yet, I now understood that I would only be judged by whether I was Naughty or Nice. And, trust me on this, I was as nice a kid as you could find in all of Indiana. Book Of Life, here I come!
It was a shame that Mitch Miller didn’t put up the words for “Nearer, My God, To Thee” because that’s how I was feeling that night. Yes, a few years later I was mature enough to embrace the awe-inspiring God we adults come to know. But thanks to a funny Christmas song, I had a lovely transition when I was struggling with self-worth as I saw my childish self through the eyes of an austere Maker. It was a perfect Christmas gift that I have never forgotten.
And I now give you my Hanukkah / Christmas gift. Should you gobble too quickly and choke on the delicious matzoh balls or latkes at your Hanukkah feast, or choke on those scrumptious morsels of goose at your Dickens Christmas meal, I now have the ultimate Heimlich maneuver for you. As you’re gasping, just try to pronounce that “Ch” sound in “Chanukah,“ and I guarantee your pharynx will clear in an instant. And that’ll keep you in the Book of Life all the way through New Year’s Eve.