[This post was originally published in issue #2 of Jest Magazine. I think it's time to post it here.]
The holidays are upon us!
Like most Catholics, I am looking forward to Christmas with the limb-twitching anticipation of a small child. Unlike most Catholics, I am Jewish. That means I won’t be celebrating Christmas. Instead, I’ll be celebrating a less “mainstream,” but nonetheless magically mysterious holiday called “Hanukkah.”
Like it or not, there exists a great many misconceptions about the holiday Burl Ives once called “Christmas, minus joy.” As a service to non-Jews, I would like to answer some of the more common questions surrounding the great festival of lights. I hope this will serve as an invaluable reference guide to those wishing to better understand their dentists or moneylenders.
QUESTION #1: HOW DO YOU SPELL IT?
This question reminds me of a great trick I used to play in summer camp: I would approach the smartest kid in camp and say, “I’ve got a spelling challenge for you!” Then, once a crowd gathered, I would say, “Chrysanthemum is a tricky word. Well, I’ll bet you can’t spell it.”
I’d let him give it his best shot, take a dramatic pause, and say, “Ooh, I’m so sorry. The correct spelling is ‘I-T’. It. If you’d listened to my challenge carefully, you would have known I said, “I’ll bet you can’t spell ‘it’.” Then snatch the “World’s Smartest Camper” sash from him, place it around you, and run around in a circle shouting, “I AM SMARTER THAN MOSES!!”
What does this have to do with Hanukkah? How about everything? You see, there is no single correct spelling of the holiday. That’s one of its many mystical qualities. “Hanukkah” is perfectly acceptable when addressing gift cards. Alternately, any of the following spellings are also acceptable:
Star Trek II: Wrath of Khanukkah
QUESTION #2: WHAT DO THE HOLIDAY’S MANY SYMBOLS REPRESENT?
Hanukkah, like many Jewish holidays, is ripe with symbols. These symbols are inextricably bound to a rich Jewish history. Unfortunately, I don’t know any of it because I spent most of my time in Sunday school drawing pictures of the Incredible Hulk and Garfield. However, since even my patchwork knowledge of Jewish history far surpasses the information you non-Jews have gleaned from watching Friars’ Club roasts, I will do my best to illuminate your dark ignorance about the symbols of the Jewish faith.
The Menorah: This is the most commonly known symbol of Hanukkah. A menorah looks a bit like one of the tasteful candelabras Liberace kept perched atop his piano during intimate performances. Liberace was not Jewish. I cannot stress that enough.
There were 12 tribes in ancient Israel, six on the National team and another six on the American team. The menorah holds nine candles, with each flame representing one of the nine tribes that anyone cared about. Sincere apologies to the tribes of Levi, Dan and Expos. Maybe you should have worked harder on your bullpens.
The Dreidel: The dreidel symbolizes the Jewish people’s love of gambling. Dreidels have four sides, with each face marked by a Hebrew character. Children spin the dreidel and pray that it lands on the side that symbolizes “take everyone’s pennies and, as you slide them all to your pile, laugh maniacally to rub it in.”
The Chalice of Immortality: In my family, we would traditionally bring this out on the first night of Hanukkah. My father would recite a prayer as we passed the chalice around, taking turns drinking the blood of Christians from it. Every Jewish family I know has one of these but for some reason they are not as commonly associated with Hanukkah as the menorah or those chocolate coins, which, if I’m not mistaken, also contain the blood of Christians. For confirmation on that last part, I’d suggest consulting a rabbi or chocolatier.
QUESTION #3: WHY IS HANUKKAH CELEBRATED OVER EIGHT DAYS?
This question finds its answer in the Old Testament. If you do not have a copy handy, you can also consult Stan Lee’s book, How To Draw Comics the Old Testament Way. The Maccabees, who were later known as The Anheuser-Busch Maccabees, were everyone’s favorite tribe and were charged with protecting the temple. According to the Old Testament, they fucked up. The temple was destroyed by trolls, and the Maccabees were left in the rubble. One of the Maccabees had the idea that they should re-build the temple before God showed up, or they would all get in huge trouble. It was decided that the work required to erect a temple—even a lousy one—was nothing compared to the guilt they would feel when they saw God’s disappointed face, so they got to work.
There was only enough lamp oil to light them for a single day, but by some miracle that oil lasted a full eight days. That still wasn’t enough time to build a whole temple and God smote the Maccabees upon his return, but you have to admit that eight days is still nothing to sneeze at. Some say the nine candleholders represent each of the eight days the lamp oil stayed lit, and the ninth candle represents the day God killed all the Maccabees and arranged their slaughtered bodies to spell out the words “HAPPY HANUKKAH (OR CHANUKKAH – WHATEVER YOU LIKE).”
QUESTION #4: DO JEWISH PEOPLE REALLY JUST WISH THEY CELEBRATED CHRISTMAS?
No, but Jewish people do wish they celebrated Easter instead of Passover. Consider the contrast between chocolate bunnies and unsalted matzo, and try to convince an eight-year-old child that he’s one of the chosen people.
QUESTION #5: DO YOU REALLY GET GIFTS FOR EIGHT DAYS IN A ROW? IF SO, THAT KICKS CHRISTMAS’ ASS.
Yes and no. Let me explain. Getting gifts for eight days in a row may sound fantastic but try to imagine how you’d feel staring at a pile of gifts, opening one, and discovering it contains only the left partner of a pair of slippers. Add to that the following night’s anxiety of trying to avoid opening what you know will be nothing but the other slipper.
This prolonged cycle of stress and disappointment may be the single most Jewish tradition of them all.
QUESTION #6: SO, LET ME REITERATE MY PREVIOUS QUESTION. DO JEWISH PEOPLE REALLY JUST WISH THEY CELEBRATED CHRISTMAS?
*Sigh.* Yes. (sound of pistol being cocked.)