Growing up in a small town in the UP, I thought almost everyone was Finnish or Ojibwe (or both: Finndian). And at Christmas, I liked feeling that our whole town was coming together as a community. I would hop from playing the piano for a Christmas Eve service at my Lutheran church to joining a friend at a Methodist service, and would find myself thinking of everyone else in town worshipping that night in celebration of the Christ Child’s birth. I’d picture everyone’s carols rising straight up to the stars amid the wood smoke of our houses.
My first year at Carleton College, I would sit in the front row every day in psychology class next to a girl who seemed intimidatingly smart, competent, and poised. A physics major with straight black hair just to her shoulders, she spoke with an aura of “I know this already.” She was from a Chicago suburb. During finals week, I ran into her on the steps of the Sayles Hill where we picked up our campus mail, and I cheerfully said to her, “Merry Christmas!” She paused, standing on the top step looking down at me, then said, “Happy Hanukkah!”
I know I replied “Oh! Happy Hanukkah!” as I continued down the steps, but what I felt was an earthquake beneath my feet. The ground was no longer solid. I didn’t know what Hanukkah was then, but her greeting back was both rebuke and a forced awakening. There was no common world, no ground on which we both stood with Christ’s coming as the ultimate frame of meaning. Or if there was, it was not visible unless I let my sense of the world become larger and different from the one in which I had been raised.
Two years later as a Religion major, I would be studying Jewish thinkers who moved me, writing papers in which I found myself recognizing the wisdom and beauty in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber (and the psychologically brilliant Muslim medieval theologian, al-Ghazali )— writing my way into a perspective whose horizon was still larger than what I felt I could comfortably inhabit.
Recently I was interviewed about Hanukkah and Christmas for the WIU show “The Purple Chair.” I found myself saying that I didn’t want to demonize the commercialization of Christmas. Even if people lose a sense of the Christ Child, there’s a deep human instinct for shared celebration and festivity in the darkest time of the year, the time between harvest and planting. That’s why Hanukkah has become a more significant Jewish festival than it would be in the absence of Christmas, with Jews creating Hanukkah bushes of blue, silver, and white alongside Christmas trees of red and green — trees themselves that go back to pagan days of communal solstice celebration.
But amid the commercialization of Christmas and Hanukkah — the economic ties forging a common world among us all — there is always a chance for conversion to a deeper meaning in the season. As we string lights up in the darkness, we can intensify our awareness that the True Light is Christ breaking into our world. And Jews who light one extra candle each night of Hanukkah testify that no matter what atrocity befalls the Jews past or present, God is always with them.