When I was growing up, December was for Chanukah. No one I knew celebrated Christmas. And I mean no one. I grew up in Brooklyn, and almost all my relatives, friends, teachers, and even acquaintances were Orthodox Jews.
Like most families on the block, we placed our menorahs in the front window. We said the blessings, sang Hebrew songs, and played dreidl. We got Chanukah gelt – money, not presents like other kids in my class.
"Presents are for Christmas, not Chanukah," my father insisted.
That's how Chanukah was in America, even in the recesses of religious Brooklyn; still defined by what it was not: not Christmas.
And that's why my move to Israel was so refreshing. In Israel, Rosh Hashanah, Succot, Passover and Chanukah are national holidays. Schools are closed, and often businesses, too.
By early December every kiosk and supermarket presented cardboard boxes of fresh, sumptuous donuts for Chanukah. Sufganiyot, with jelly or crème or caramel or chocolate gushing out like a geyser. Fried, like potato latkes, to celebrate the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days.
In the center of town a giant electric menorah was lit every night. Throngs of teenagers wandered through the midrachov — the pedestrian cobblestone square — until way past their bedtime. But there was no bedtime because it was Chanukah vacation.
It was so different from America, where, despite all the politically correct inclusiveness, the bland "Seasons Greetings" messages on TV, "holiday" means "Christmas," and Chanukah is relegated to being Not That Holiday.
Then I moved back to the U.S.
On Thanksgiving the radio drives me crazy with Christmas songs. All people want to do is shop, shop, shop. After seven years in Israel, the sight of so many stores and material goods is overwhelming.
Okay, so it's not really the shopping that bothers me, but the sensation that there's a giant party to which everyone but me is invited.
I'm no longer in Brooklyn, solely among Orthodox Jews, so now I see how the other half lives: there are office holiday parties and media holiday parties and friends' holiday parties, all with giant evergreens and mistletoe. Sure, there's a table with a lonely little menorah and plastic driedls, but it's off to the side, almost invisible, dwarfed by the glittering ornaments and lights hanging from the tree. Christmas is everywhere. And Chanukah, is, Not That Holiday.
So I've had to learn not to let Chanukah be pushed off to the side of the dance floor. I make huge Chanukah parties, where people bring grab-bag prizes and eat latkes and donuts. I light the menorah each night with friends and sing the jaunty tunes of childhood.
And I realize it's different this time around in America. I revel in my Chanukah joys because I know that halfway around the world, come December, people are celebrating Chanukah like there's no other holiday. Because there, Chanukah is the only holiday there is.
Amy Klein writes for The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. Her commentary was adapted from her essay in the book How to Spell Chanukah and Other Holiday Dilemmas.