Hanukkah Basics

I’ve grown up with Judaism as a large influence on my life. I went to Hebrew School, spent hours studying for my Bat Mitzvah, and participated in countless community events. It’s a part of me, and always will be.

Being Jewish always made me “different.” It made me the “other” in a lot of situations. I was fortunate that I wasn’t always the only “other,” but still not “the same” as everyone else. It always bothered me. I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my faith as I grew up, and most come right around this time of the year. There are a few things that I thought I should sort out, just to answer the questions about us “others” who don’t celebrate Christmas, which according to many calendars but will never make sense to me, is defined as an American holiday. So much for a melting pot, I guess.

Although it’s not necessarily related to Hanukkah, I’ve been asked the question, “Your last name is Vetrano? I thought you were Jewish.” More times than I can count. Both of those facts are true, but I’m not sure why people are so surprised. Vetrano is a stereotypically Italian last name, and rightfully so. It ends in a vowel, and sounds a whole lot better when you say it with an accent after eating a plate of spaghetti and drinking fine wine. Yes, Vetrano stems from my father’s Italian roots. My nationality, therefore, is classified as Italian for the sake of this argument. Now, Judaism is the religion I was brought up to understand. I studied the Torah and lived my life based on its teachings. What’s the takeaway here? A religion is not a nationality.

“So, as a Jew, what exactly do you do on Christmas?” This is a question that has been asked to my face. Word for word. Despite the fact that the entire country shuts down on Christmas, non-celebrators are still allowed to live their lives. We have earned the strange reputation for going to see a movie and eat Chinese food, which I can say I’ve taken part in, but we also have other things to do. We can spend time with our families, sleep in, catch up on reading or reality television, or go play in the snow. My favorite tradition, actually, was volunteering at a soup kitchen with my family on Christmas each year.

Hanukkah does not equal Christmas. Just because Christmas is a very holy day in the Christian world does not necessarily mean that Hanukkah is an equally important holiday. The holiest days of the year are Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Both of these holidays are in the fall. Hanukkah is an important holiday, but shouldn’t be equated to Christmas, or compared. They are two very separate holidays which celebrate two very different things.

Santa should not wish me a Happy Hanukkah the same way Moshe shouldn’t say Merry Christmas. What annoys me the most about the holiday season is the attempt at a neutral greeting that blatantly fails. Neutral holiday symbols include snowflakes, snowmen, hot chocolate, family, and joy. They do not include Stars of David, Santa, Rudolph, Menorahs, or any other religious symbol. If you’re going to make a greeting with Santa, write Merry Christmas. I won’t be offended.

Jewish Holidays begin at sundown, not sun up. Judaism follows the lunar calendar, which, along with making the dates of holidays change on our American calendar year to year, means that the holiday starts at sundown. So, when you see on your American calendar that the “First Day of Hanukkah” is on December 17th, that actually means you should be wishing people a Happy Hanukkah starting on the night of the 16th. It’s a bit confusing, but easy once you get used to it.

“Is it Chanukah? Hanukkah? Chanukkah? Huh?” Really, it doesn’t matter. Just throw some c’s and h’s and k’s in there and you’re set.

“So do you only get eight gifts then? Or do you just open your gift on the first night and that’s it?” Gift giving and opening varies by household. When I was younger, my parents and family gave me a lot of gifts, allowing me to open two or three a night. Growing older, I received less and less gifts, as most people do. Sometimes I can open one a night, and sometimes I can’t. It depends on the year.

“So do you hate Christmas music?” Yes, I do. Not because I’m Jewish. Because it’s the same handful of songs over and over again by different artists. The first time through, they’re great. 50th time through? I’m done.

It’s hard to be the “other,” but sometimes even harder to understand something you’re not. So, when all else fails, turn to the best learning source out there:

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