I don’t need to write about how weird this year has been for all of us. I graduated in May from the tv screen in my living room and will be starting my first teaching job next semester directing a choir in masks. Our sense of reality has been distorted and shifting back to “normal” will take a lot of time and effort from all of us. Being asked to write about Hanukkah during this year, however, is pushing me to recognize some of the joy and faith that I continue to have regardless of the current state of the world right now.
Hanukkah is considered a minor Jewish holiday. While it commemorates an ancient triumph, it is not based in the Torah. The holiday was blown up because it happens at the same time as Christmas. This means some families have very different traditions associated with the festival of lights. Lighting the menorah is obviously pretty standard, as well as eating latkes, although we may differ over the choice to accompany them with apple sauce or with sour cream. And most families that I know will practice some sort of gift giving, but I don’t know of any who follow the same tradition as my family.
I’ve heard of gifts just coming from parents, or even from Hanukkah Harry. I’ve even heard of other families who receive gifts from Elijah as my family does. In my house, however, Elijah doesn’t leave presents just anywhere, they appear under our beds. As a family, we gather around the menorah, open a door, light the candles, and recite the prayer. Why open a door?? Well, we open the door so that Elijah can get in! When we see the candle flames flicker, it means Elijah has come and left our presents under the bed, so we run to our rooms and see what we got!
Now that I’m older, I’ve grown to really appreciate the lengths to which Elijah must have gone to get these gifts under my bed. Even when I would celebrate Hanukkah at Luther, somehow gifts would arrive under my bed after I lit my menorah with friends. Those were some of my favorite times celebrating Hanukkah, because I had the opportunity to celebrate with people who hadn’t experienced it before. Most of the friends I made at Luther were unfamiliar with Jewish holidays but were so excited to learn about them and celebrate with me. I taught them the prayer, and it became a group event for my friends to come to my room for Hanukkah each night.
This year I’m celebrating Hanukkah back at home while I’m student teaching. While being back at home for the holiday has been nice, this year has definitely made it difficult to feel hopeful and positive. I’m not able to see my grandparents and celebrate with them as usual, nor have I been able to light the candles with my sister. My student teaching placement, however, gave me a similar experience to when I would celebrate at Luther.
The first day of Hanukkah I wore a Hanukkah sweater for “Festive Friday” at my school. First thing in the morning, I had a student ask me what Hanukkah was about. I gave a short explanation that during biblical times, a group of Jews were blessing a temple that had been taken from them. In that temple, there was only enough oil for one night, but it burned for 8 nights. The holiday celebrates that miracle. The 3rd grader thought about it for a moment and then looked at me and said, “I really like that.”
Later that day, I had a whole class that wanted to ask me about Hanukkah. What it celebrates, what my family does to celebrate it, and how it might be different for other people. The class was fascinated by the Hanukkah story, and by the tradition in my house for Elijah to leave presents under our beds. One particular student asked me if Elijah really left the presents, or if it was really just my parents. Without hesitating, I told him of course it was Elijah.
Hanukkah is about celebrating a miracle and believing in what seems impossible. As we grow up, I think more and more that we lose faith in what we don’t understand. We can’t believe in impossibilities anymore. But in my life, I thought it would be impossible for me to still be finding gifts under my bed when I was at Luther. Or for my sister to find them under her bed this year when she’s not able to celebrate with the rest of our family. But Elijah still found a way. And if there’s anything that has brought me hope and faith in this time, it’s that the oil in the temple inexplicably burned for 8 days, and that somehow there will be a present for me under my bed.