Generally, around this time of year, I find myself making more frequent trips to Starbucks. No, it’s not because my kids are anymore rambunctious or because I am getting any less sleep (although both of those are probably true). Really, it’s the shorter days. During this time of year, I find myself looking for light where ever I can find it, and sometimes that happens to be in the form of a fancy caffeinated beverage. As we near the holiday of Chanukah, however, those coffee runs are easily replaced with thoughts of dreidles, candles and fried goodness.
It’s no coincidence that Christmas, Diwali (Hindu festival of lights), Kwanzaa (festival honoring African heritage) and Chanukah all fall during the darkest time of the year. And while each of these holidays has very different historical origins and different modes of celebration, they each have something in common: an emphasis on adding light to the darkness.
During Christmas, centuries ago, it was customary to kindle lights, and today Christmas trees and homes are adorned with lights in celebration of the holiday, and some place candles in the window. During Diwali, diyas (lamps and candles) are lit both inside and outside of the home. During Kwanzaa, a candle lighting ritual is performed, and during Chanukah, we celebrate each night by adding a candle to our Chanukiahs (Chanukah candelabra).
The Midrash says that as the days passed into winter, Adam (the first man) noticed in terror that the days were becoming shorter, and the hours of light were becoming less. He thought the world was blacking out and being destroyed because of his sin of eating the forbidden fruit. He fasted for eight days until the solstice, the shortest day of the year and darkest point of the descent into darkness. Then he saw the days brightening, becoming longer, and understood with relief that it was the way of the world. He realized that he would have to learn to live with his reality, confronting the darkness rather than hiding from it. He created fire as his way of adding his light to the darkness. As the light grew, he made an eight-day festival, and the next year he again celebrated his reprieve. His sons eventually forgot the original source of the holiday and used it for pagan celebration.
Today, we have reclaimed Adam’s holiday. Yes, we celebrate the miracle of the oil and the military victory of the Maccabees, but we also confront the darkness by adding light each night through our lighting of the Chanukiah.
In addition to adding light literally to this dark time of year, Chanukah provides an opportunity for us to figuratively spread that light to others. Here are eight possible suggestions to correspond to the eight nights of Chanukah:
Instead of giving each other gifts each night of Chanukah, choose one night to donate what you would have given as gifts to a local charity or family in need.
Use Chanukah as an opportunity to reach out to family and community members with whom you have lost touch by inviting them to your home.
Bring your own family closer together by getting a new board game for everyone to play one night while the candles burn.
Spend one evening volunteering at a local soup kitchen, feeding the hungry and helping them get into the spirit of the season.
Make Chanukah cards for American and Israeli soldiers serving their countries.
Prepare Chanukah bags for donation to the food pantry, making sure to include the ingredients for latkes and other Chanukah favorites.
Visit a retirement community and sing Chanukah songs with the residents.
Create a video of your family singing a Chanukah song or acting out a skit to send to family members who are too far away to physically celebrate with you.
By focusing on adding light to a dark time, Chanukah can become a meaningful and fun holiday for the whole family (and you may find that you don’t even need those trips to Starbucks to get through the dark days)!
Dr. Sarah Levy has been involved in the field of Jewish education for nearly fifteen years, currently serving at the Director of Adult Education for the Colorado Agency for Education. She lives in Denver with her husband, Benny, and their four kids.