When I was young, maybe five or six, I asked my parents if I could say the Chanukah blessing. I suppose they were expecting something along the lines of “Blessed art thou oh lord our god” in five-year-old speak. What they got was a prayer to the Baby Jesus. They promptly decided that some ‘splainin’ had to happen. I now have firm grasp of the difference between Judaism and Christianity, and a firm understanding of how best to benefit from the two. My sister and I demanded Chanukah presents as well as Christmas presents all through our childhood (we still receive the occasional Chanukah gift). My favorite Decembers are the ones where the last night of Chanukah falls on or near Christmas Eve and we end up with a Christmas Tree and a Chanukah Menorah side by side in the living room. I think that image represents my family well.
The best part of Chanukah, as with many Jewish holidays, is the food. Latkes, to be precise. My southern friends call them “Jewish potato pancakes.” The art of Latke-making is something I have not truly mastered yet, although I’ve tried a couple times. Making Latkes is not actually a hugely difficult process, but it involves a lot of steps and the recipe is one of those oral tradition things that depends on a knowledge of what looks right. I believe the best latke-making experience of my life was for a Chanukah party I planned for my dorm-mates my sophomore year of college. My friend, Seth Woods Jokingly began calling the party “Jewmania,” and after he fried at least 50 Latkes (from potatoes we had all grated by hand), we decided he could call the party whatever he wanted.
After you’ve made the Latkes, you have to decide what goes on them. This is generally a big debate. There are two options: sour cream and applesauce. This means you end up with two camps: the savory camp and the sweet camp. My family has reached a tenuous compromise by serving our latkes with both applesauce AND sour cream, but the peace is precarious.
All in all, Chanukah really isn’t a very important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It celebrates an obscure little victory and a modest miracle. It’s importance may have been overly inflated, but it’s a lovely celebration none the less (anything that allows you to eat copious amounts of food fried in oil and play with fire FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS should be considered important.) For me, the now all too rare sight of the Chanukah Menorah all lit up and the smell of potatoes frying herald the start of the holiday season.