Tag Archives: reform judaism

Flexible Holidays

17 Dec

An interesting thing about being someone who made a drastic change in religious faith – Christianity/Protestant to Judaism – is the concept of the holidays. As I was making my very slow progress into choosing to be Jewish – a process that took more than 20 years – much was always talked about with “the December Dilemma” – aka “to tree or not to tree, that is the question.” That’s a topic onto itself, but an additional observance I made is the different viewpoints on the importance of dates to holidays.

As you may or may not know, Jewish life follows a lunar calendar, which means that, in reference to the standard calendar we all follow, Jewish holidays jump all over the place – one year Rosh Hashanah is in early October, another it will be right after Labor Day (2013 happens to be one of those years), Hanukkah sometimes starts right after Thanksgiving, other years practically runs into New Years, etc. Contrast this to the standard calendar and how Christianity has “fixed” dates into the calendar for Christmas (although curiously, the whole Easter season still “floats”), and what that means for celebrations.

Growing up in a Presbyterian household, of course, we were all about Christmas – and my mom and sister’s families still are. The families gather on Christmas eve, and Christmas morning, and everyone gets together for Christmas dinner, etc. All this happens with perfect regularity on December 24th and 25th. Meanwhile, contrast that to our Jewish holiday traditions – now always, we celebrate high holy days on the dates proscribed, and same with Passover – mostly because those are more “outward” holidays, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being devoted to prayer and reflection in the synagogues, and while Passover is “in home”, it is focused on specific dates when we gather with family and friends to retell the ancient stories of Passover and eat the traditional foods.

Hanukkah, being a minor “festival of lights” holiday that somehow got cast to compete with Christmas, and therefore is amplified into something way more important than the sages who created the holiday thought it should be, also though, like all Jewish holidays, floats in date. And of course, because it last 8 days, it also tends to be much more vague in terms of scheduling. Nonetheless, Jewish families in the US (and presumably elsewhere, though the “alternate Christmas” is more of a USA phenomenon than anywhere else) use it as an opportunity to gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, etc.

That said, because it occurs at a time of year that is a) busy as hell, b) already has built in Federal/work holidays, etc., many take the opportunity determine for themselves when they celebrate it. They light the obligatory candles on the proscribed dates of course, and many families do small/daily gift exchanges during that time, but because kids have schedules, families have schedules, etc., doing a big Christmas-style family gathering over a meal and gift exchange is pretty often scheduled conveniently, versus within the “8 crazy nights” of Hanukkah.

Examples of this are everywhere and especially within our family. With our oldest son Joel not getting home from college until next week, even though Saturday night was the “eighth crazy night!”, we’re gathering with the family this coming weekend and doing the big shindig then. Some years, it has shifted after New Years. One year a few years ago, it shifted to MARCH! (we all agreed that was a bit ridiculous). But shift it we do, but we still do all the traditional stuff like lighting the menorah, singing the Dreidel song, having gelt chocolates, frying latkes (fried potato pancakes), etc. etc.

And that is in stark contrast to Christmas – with our Christmas tradition with my family, we pretty much always gather on the 24th and 25th, come hell or high water, and in fact, only once in recent memory did any shifting of date. A few years ago, there was a blizzard in Iowa on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and so we made plans to shift the celebration to the following day – the 26th. Well, my mom was fit to be tied – walked around in a blue funk all day on Christmas day and clearly, the world was out of balance. Meanwhile, for us Jews in the house, it was simple – the holiday is about the celebration, not about the date … but when you’ve never missed the date, you get a bit ferklempt.

This year, we’ve got another conflict, but we’re not shifting the date – much. My sister needs to fly to California to be with her oldest son/my nephew while he has knee surgery the next day. She’s flying on Christmas morning, of course. Me, being the Jewish guy in the family, of course suggested we shift the celebration – and shift we will – to the 23rd in the evening with my sister. I also saw an opportunity – that meant Christmas day could be a free day, so I suggested we have a traditional Jewish Christmas day – sleep in late, go see a movie and have Chinese food for dinner. Let’s just say that while my family found that to be a great idea, my mom shot that down in an instant. So, we’ll still do our traditional Christmas morning of coffee, fresh baked cinnamon rolls and watching the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS, followed by my sister’s family arriving, sans my sister, for more gift exchanging, and Christmas dinner.

However you celebrate the holidays, any holiday for that matter, to me it’s all about being with family and friends – gather, share a meal and drinks, tell stories, laugh a lot and just be together. And that is hard to schedule. Which is probably why we have proscribed days to celebrate holidays, so at least, even if we shift it, we’re still sure to get together.

Happy Holidays – Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, etc. etc. etc. Whatever you celebrate, enjoy celebrating it. Regardless of when you do it.

As you were,



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