Chanukah vs Christmas

by Philip Greenblatt


Published (in Yiddish) in “The Keidaner” Bulletin No. 37, March 1, 1938.


After Christmas I was remembering what Chanukah was like in my hometown, and I tell you honestly that one of those Chanukahs was worth ten of your modern-day Christmases – not to compare the two! Things are really different in the here-and-now. Take for example this Christmas. Just what is it? Weeks of pre-holiday carryings-on, filled with tales of what never happened – “nit geshtoygen nit gefloygen”1 as we say – about a Santa Claus, a white beard, a sleigh with horses – though there isn’t any snow to be found – wiggling down chimneys and other fairy tales.

But back home, our Chanukah was a simple joy. Quietly, leisurely, it was filled with real snow, real sleighs with horses, real white beards … and black ones too.

Here for example, are some typical scenes: Returning home from the study-house to bless the Chanukah lights, the snow squeaking underfoot, the frozen windows all filled with beautiful frost-flowers. Hands sticking to the doorknobs gleaming with ice. Inside the house it’s delightfully warm, a little smoky, but never mind. The menorah on the window is polished and shining. There is one candle, two candles with a shammes2 all ready in the holders. As father makes ready to say the “lehadlik ner shel Chanukah”3 all the family members come near.

The house smells from the frying goose fat, the plates with gribenes4 on the warming shelf, the aroma of big dritmelene cakes wafts from the oven. A real delight, as I live and breathe. And as for Chanukah money, there’s no stockings, no hocus-pocus. We know exactly where we’ll get it from: from Grandpa Yankl a penny, from Uncle Itsik a penny, from Father a silver groschen, and more from Grandma, Mother, uncles, aunts. A penny here and a kopek there, it all adds up to a tremendous fortune; with our Chanukah money we can buy whatever our hearts desire. There are plenty of places to buy things, moreover; you don’t need to be rushing or pushing into elevators or crawling through bargain basements, as they say here.

You can choose, for example, from a wide selection of dreydels. Tin, lead, large, small, priced from a kopek to a silver groschen. All kinds of different gadgets, and baked beans on the hearth while you wait. Dreydel molds with “nun” “gimel” “hey” “shin” engraved expertly, all at wholesale prices, right from the factory of Alter the Dwarf. Hot beans, poppy seeds, cakes, ginger sweets, carob-bread from Jocheved or Leah the Butcher. Nuts and kvass from Reuven Tsemakh, stale rotten apples, dried pears and scraps from Gutl the chimney-sweeper, Bargains galore, all very cheap.

At home in the evening the family gathers together. They play a little cards – “okeh” and “sixty-six”. They drink tea. It’s very merry. We go only half days to cheder, and the rabbi is in such a genial mood, a miracle must have happened. He tells us about the Hasmoneans, and we all have a good time.

Kids throw snowballs, go sliding on whatever will hold them up, either the Smilga or the Neviaszhe, or downhill with sleds. They skate “v’yomer Dovid” – with an arm over the eyes – and play tricks on each other, their frozen faces shining red with joy. And so with noise and tumult we pass the eight days of Chanukah, and then back to the ordinary winter days and nights, and in cheder, waiting for Purim when things come alive once again.

Can you forget the scene?


Translated by A. Cassel

Footnotes

  1. A Yiddish phrase, literally “didn’t rise, didn’t fly”, expressing pronounced skepticism.
  2. The “service” candle in a Chanukah menorah
  3. the blessing over the Chanukah candles
  4. poultry skin bits fried crisp with onions