Christmas, meet Hanukkah

Winter's most festive holidays swap some recipes and stories

Driving around the neighborhood, my kids were wistfully admiring the fairyland of colored lights and wire-sculpted reindeer adorning the lawns. Even the orthodontist had a spectacular tree in the waiting area, appropriately decorated with ceramic apples, wrapped toothbrushes and berry-flavored dental floss.

Every holiday season Jewish children suffer from Christmas-envy. That's where Hanukkah fills the void. Once a minor holiday in the Jewish line-up of celebrations, it has been elevated in importance to the A-list.

I was reminded of this when we left the orthodontist's office and my daughters were ranking their favorite holidays, and the winter festivals topped the list. Their choice was probably once again due to the bright lights during the longer winter nights (not to mention the presents and child-friendly foods).

From Pagan times to the present, people have been pushing back the darkness first with fires, then candles, lanterns and electric bulbs. Christmas has a lighted tree while Hanukkah has a lighted menorah (Jewish candelabra), although the cross-cultural pollination today finds many Hanukkah bushes in Jewish homes.

When my grandmother was growing up in Russia, her family performed a beautiful "festival of lights" ritual called the Flaming Tea Ceremony. Chunks of sugar were doused with brandy and everyone was given a glass of hot tea and a teaspoon full of the spiked sugar. The lights were dimmed and a lit taper was passed around the room, lighting everyone's high-octane sugar. When the last person's sugar was ablaze, they dropped the flaming cubes into their tea and the room sizzled. Oooh's and aaah's filled the home, then they sang Hanukkah songs and noshed on my great-grandma's potato latkes and famous old-world apple strudel.

This year Hanukkah is rather late, with the first candle-lighting taking place Dec. 22. Since Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, the dates are ever-changing, while Christmas has a standing reservation on the 25th day of December on the Gregorian calendar, locking in the date year after year.

Hanukkah is a celebration of the miraculous flame that kept the drop of purified oil burning for eight days to help Judah Macabee rededicate the desecrated temple in Jerusalem. Those eight days are now the excuse for giving children eight separate presents on each night of the holiday during the candle-lighting and sing-along ceremony.

Even though Christmas technically lasts for 12 days, the big bonanza is on Christmas Day, Jesus' birthday. Still, gift-giving is a central theme of both holidays. Shushing down the chimney, Santa Claus bears gifts to good little boys and girls, while Hanukkah-celebrating families pile on the gifts around the menorah to all children, whether naughty or nice.

Hanukkah is also a festival of cholesterol, celebrating the eight-day miracle with jellied doughnuts and latkes or potato pancakes fried in (what else) oil, served with applesauce and sour cream. The true miracle is if you can manage not resembling a sack of potatoes after stuffing your face silly with these fattening latkes for more than a week!

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