Many religions, most religions, celebrate a Winter Festival. Christmas is the main one in the United Kingdom, but there are others, like Hanukkah, which is the subject of this post. One advantage of not being religious is the fun of being able to celebrate other people's festivals and all through my life, in spite of my Jewish background, I've been a keen celebrator of Christmas. There are good secular reasons for this, mainly to do with food, presents, and general fun and games, but also, eight years in the choir of my school has made me a natural lover of, for example, carols and carol services. My best memory of carol singing was going round a village in Israel on Christmas Eve of 1966, singing carols to the mainly South African or American immigrants who lived there. Every household without exception was delighted to be reminded of "home" and invited us in to drink something or eat something....we returned to the house we were staying in through orange groves heavy with fruit. I've never forgotten that night.
Two years ago, I went to a Carol Service at Ely Cathedral and it was a wonderful experience. I'm going again this year. I like the candles. I like the story. I like the whole thing.
The Winter Festival for Jews is called Hanukkah. It celebrates a miracle. Antiochus, the Syrian king, had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbidden the Jews to worship there. Judah Maccabee and his brothers rose up against Antiochus. They were surrounded and besieged and had only oil enough to light the Temple lamps for one more day. But every day, God made the oil last a little bit longer....it lasted eight days by which time, the Jews had time to make more oil. (No, I don't know how either!) In the end, Antiochus was defeated, the Temple reconsecrated and to this day, Jews light candles on the Menorah, the eight-branched candelabra to celebrate the miracle.
But not only to celebrate the miracle. In the winter, everyone likes to gather round a fire. The days are short and cold, (and yes, I have memories of snow in Jerusalem during my childhood) and we have to console ourselves and keep warm and light candles against the encroaching darkness. Eating lovely food is one way humanity has found for doing this and for Hanukkah, Jews have concentrated on two delicious things: doughnuts and latkes. Everyone knows what a doughnut is, and the picture below shows a rather fancy selection on sale in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, a few hundred yards from where I lived when I was very young.
Latkes (potato pancakes) may need a bit of an introduction. I wrote a book in 1990 called THE TASTE OF WINTER, in which a girl learns about Hanukkah and takes some latkes in to an assembly at her school, to foster understanding between different religions. I provided a recipe at the end of this book which I'm reproducing here. They are very labour-intensive but worth it, once a year.
Grate 2Kgm potatoes. Wrap the grated potatoes in a clean tea towel and squeeze as dry as possible. Then mix potatoes and two finely-chopped onions with three eggs and enough flour or matzo meal (or a combination of both) to make a paste that looks like a thick pancake batter. Heat oil (sunflower or olive, like Judah Maccabee) and drop spoonfuls of batter into the oil. When one side is golden, turn over the latke and cook the other side. Serve hot.
(this picture shows an ancient Menorah found near Jerusalem in 1900)
There are other delightful things about Hanukkah. Children like the Dreidels, little spinning tops which work amazingly well. They have Hebrew letters on each face: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin. This stands for the sentence: Ness Gadol Haya Sham, which means: There was a great miracle there. The picture below shows dreidels from that same market, Mahane Yehuda. Traditionally, Jewish children get gifts at Hanukkah, and chocolate coins are often given. And many secular Jewish children also get Christmas presents. I always did. I always had Christmas dinner and still do. I don't seen anything wrong with that. The world is dark and anything anyone can do to light candles and spread the joy and share the tasty food should be done, regardless of which God you believe in, or even if you believe in none.