How Chanukah feels
December 26, 2005
A friend asked recently what Chanukah feels like. Not about its
history or its literature or its liturgy, but about how it feels to celebrate.
On the first night, as night's darkness rises, there are just these two wee flames: one on the shamash and one on the first candle in the chanukiyyah. We stand around the candles and sing three short blessings: one for kindling the holiday lights, and one for the miracles of ancient days, and one offering thanks for being alive in this moment. And then the little lights just gleam there, tiny against the world of dark outside the window.
When I was a kid there were games of dreidl to be played, and presents to open. I would choose one gift each night from the gaily-wrapped pile on the sideboard. Then, and now, the holiday meant eating latkes, of course -- it wouldn't feel right to turn the calendar page at the end of December without at least once standing over the stove watching potato pancakes sizzle, then eating them topped with a dollop of early autumn's homemade applesauce. But mostly, for me as an adult, Chanukah is a holiday of small pleasures. A little bit more light, every evening at nightfall. A momentary feeling of warmth, of gratitude, at having made it through the darkening days. Maybe, if I'm lucky, a flash of awareness that I can rededicate the holy places in my own life as the Temple was rededicated of old.
Chanukah feels like a box of chocolates I get to enjoy at just the right pace: one at a time, stretching the box out to last a whole week, parcelling out the sweetness bite by bite. The gradual increase of light each night -- from two tiny flames to a blazing candelabrum -- mirrors the days' gradual lengthening in this hemisphere at this season. And regardless of the holiday's historical origins, when we celebrate light in the darkness, it is small, and sweet, and bright.