December 15, 2014

Festival of Lights

One of the main things I love about genealogy is how it brings history to life. It's much more than collecting names and dates, it's about really getting to know who your ancestors were as people-- what did they do? What did they believe? What did they wear? What did they eat? How did they entertain themselves?

At this time of year, it's worth exploring how our ancestors celebrated Christmas. But considering that my grandfather was Jewish, and that Hanukkah begins at sundown on the 16th, I thought I would start there.

Hanukkah is on 25th of Kislev on the [lunar] Jewish calendar, which falls anywhere between late November through December. Its proximity to Christmas has raised its status in western, predominantly Christian countries from the minor holiday it traditionally was to a bigger one.

Hanukkah commemorates the liberation of the Jews from evil King Antiochus and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem; the story is found in the first and second book of Maccabees, among deuterocanonical books in the Bible. The miracle is that, when the Temple was rededicated, they had only enough oil for the menorah to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight.

Celebration of Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a 9-pronged candelabra. On the first night, only one candle is placed in the rightmost prong of menorah and lit, and each night another is added, from right to left, until on the last night all of the candles are lit. Hanukkah candles are supposed to be only for viewing and remembering the miracle; the shamash is the candle that is used to light the others, and it is placed in its own separate prong (usually the center, but sometimes on the side, depending on the style of the menorah).

On the first night of Hanukkah, three blessings are recited as the candles are lit:

First blessing: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season."

Second Blessing: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light[s]."

Third blessing: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time."

On the subsequent nights, only the second two are recited.

Then the Hanerot Halalu hymn is sung.

And, as with all Jewish holidays except for Yom Kippur, there is food, glorious food-- brisket, latkes (potato pancakes, usually served with sour cream or apple sauce), a beet soup called borscht, kugel (a noodle dish), and jelly-filled donuts called sufganoit.

It's customary today in predominantly Christian countries for Jews to exchange small gifts on each night of Hanukkah-- mainly because most don't live separately from gentiles like they traditionally have in the past, and it stinks watching your Christian friends getting gifts while you just get to spin a dreidel. It used to be, though, that the only gifts were in the form of "gelt" given to children (in the form of both real money and coin-shaped chocolates) during Hanukkah.

My own Jewish ancestors were from Volhynia, Ukraine, part of what was known as the "Pale Of Settlement." Jews were basically forced to live here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most who lived here were poor; my grandfather and his brothers actually had to share shoes-- the family literally didn't have enough money for everyone to have their own pairs. So I doubt that there was a lot of gelt to be given.

They would have no doubt played the previously mentioned dreidel game, however.

I myself am Christian and celebrate Christmas, but I love my Jewish ancestry, and have a menorah. It's been a few years since I've busted it out and lit candles...

To my Jewish family, friends, and readers, Happy Hanukkah!

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