When I was a little girl, Hanukah lasted eight nights. It still does, of course, but back then I got a present every night, sometimes even two--one of the advantages of being an only child. For a week, I would regale my classmates with stories of what I got the night before. Then, after Christmas, they would astound me with a detailed recitation of all the gifts they found under the tree Christmas morning. They always got so much stuff; I would go home and tell my mother how lucky my friends were. Many years later, I learned that my friends' mothers used to tell my mother how jealous their children were of me because I got presents for eight days and they got presents for only one.
That, I think, is the most visible difference between Hanukah and Christmas. The other, more basic differences tend to be blurred into insignificance as the entire country, it seems, moves to the beat of Christmas Muzak.
Hanukah, just for the record, is not the Jewish Christmas. The two holidays aren't even related. Hanukah commemorates a military victory by the Maccabees and their army over the Syrian-Greeks. That victory, more than 2,000 years ago, led to the establishment of a Jewish kingdom in Judea, which lasted nearly 100 years.
Although that bit of history is not widely known, any Jewish schoolchild can tell you what happened after the Syrian-Greeks were driven from Jerusalem. As the Maccabees began the job of repurifying the Holy Temple, they could find only a one-day supply of oil for the temple menorah, which was to burn continuously. But that one-day supply lasted for eight days -- enough time to prepare more oil -- and in memory of that miracle, Hanukah is called the "Festival of Lights."
The symbol of the holiday is a nine-branched candelabrum -- one candle for each night, plus an extra one to light the others -- called a Hanukah menorah, or a "hanukiah." On the first night of Hanukah, two candles are lit, and an additional one is added each night; so at the end of the holiday, nine candles are burning.
Every year, after I polished our silver hanukiah, I would select the candles for each night. Our Hanukah candles came in a box of 44, enough to last through the holiday -- if none were broken. We always bought two boxes, to be sure. The candles came in a variety of colors, from bright magenta to dull gray-green. It was always a challenge to make sure that by the eighth night nine candles of different colors would still be left.
The "challenge" of the Hanukah candles was fun, but the chance to decorate a Christmas tree was enchanting. Christmas trees were sparkling and intricate, and, for me, exotic. My next-door neighbor used to let me help decorate her tree. I liked the tinsel best and would distribute it across the boughs with sweeping gestures. I think it was this penchant that made my best friend forbid me to help decorate her tree. She would methodically place each tinsel strand individually on the boughs. It was terribly boring to watch.
I remember suggesting that my family get a Hanukah bush one year. My father gently informed me that there was no such thing as a Hanukah bush, and we reached a compromise: I put my presents under the bird cage, and had a Hanukah bird.
Now my husband and I usually pile our gifts on the coffee table, along with the mail and unpaid bills.
The practice of gift-giving, by the way, is a relatively recent addition to Hanukah's 2,000-year history, a concession by Jewish parents in America to the pressure of Christmas sales pitches. Although I've come to believe that having a Hanukah bush and trying to make Hanukah look like Christmas merely belittles the celebration of a proud and joyous moment in Jewish history, I like the idea of giving Hanukah presents; in my personal, revisionist interpretation of the holiday, gifts are symbolic of the rededication offerings brought to the temple.
I no longer get as many "offerings" as I did when I was a little girl, and just to show what happens to us as adults, my husband's gift to me this year is a railing he installed on the basement stairs. (I had slipped down the bottom five steps, ripped my jeans and bruised not only my anatomy, but my pride.)
I've learned my lesson. Next year, I'll fall down in a jewelry store.