First of all—let me get this out of the way—I’m not Jewish. That said, I do have a favorite Hanukkah song, Hanukkah Blessings by the Barenaked Ladies. It’s one that I play often this time of year as I’m decking my halls and baking my cookies. I hope my Jewish friends and readers won’t think of this as cultural appropriation but rather as cultural appreciation.
My favorite part goes like this:
How lucky are we that we
have light so we can see
although the day is done.
What a miracle that a spark
lifts these candles out of the dark.
Every evening, one by one…
That’s where the miracle is, at least in part, for me—the ability of long-ago humans to create light where none naturally existed, and the hope that such a thing must have engendered in the dark season. What must it have been like, before humans had a true understanding of astronomy, to see the sun slip further and further away at this time of year, losing light bit by bit each day? What faith did it take to believe the sun would eventually return?
Even in our artificially-lit modern world, we feel it in our bones: the harvest is over and we enter the long darkness shored up with only what we have reserved. For ancient peoples, that meant hoarding enough food to survive until the next fertile season; for us today it means preserving contact with each other through a time when our instinct is to bundle up, close ourselves off and hunker down inside until the light returns.
In days when fuel was precious, burning oil or candles just for the sake of light was a luxury, yet most cultures developed celebrations of light to sustain themselves through the winter and reassure themselves that the sun would return. Though we call them by different names—Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice—what they carry in common is a calling together of community to spark hope, reinforce love and cultivate joy in the darkest of times.
This year’s dark season feels deeper than most. When the news is filled with reports of terrorism, intolerance and mistrust, we need the light more than ever. We need the light of understanding, peace and kindness to sustain us through these times. We need faith that the sun will soon lengthen our days again and also that humankind will find and share a greater love for each other.
As I view the lighting of the hanukiah tonight at the OFJCC, I will appreciate once again this holiday that calls us together to perform the ritual of creating light in community with others. I will carry that remembrance home when I turn on the lights strung around my Christmas tree, grateful for the faces that I see and the traditions that call us together and warm our hearts at this time of year. This is my personal talisman against dark times, dark thoughts and dark beliefs: faith in the goodness of humanity and our ability to repair and heal.
I wish you peace in this and all seasons.