Category Archives: Hanukkah

Arrival

Advent has begun, and so has Chanukah. Darkness continues to expand each night on our approach to the Midwinter Solstice, and we respond with increasing candlelight. The symbolism is rich, and direct. Sunday brought the first night of each of these celebrations. Chanukah is the older of the two, a festival in the Jewish calendar commemorating the miracle of one day’s worth of oil keeping the sacred lamp of the Holy Temple at Jerusalem burning for eight days, while Advent, in the Christian calendar, dates back to at least the fourth century. But the nightly practices for both observances are so similar: we begin with a single lit candle, and as the nights go by, more and more candles are illuminated, bringing more and more light to our darkest nights.

As with most celebrations, there are religious and secular approaches. The religious approach to Advent focuses on the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day. Last Sunday began this season and with it, we set out a ring of four candles, wreathed in evergreen fir or balsam. Three candles are purple, one is rose. The first, which we illuminated on Sunday, is a purple candle, representing Hope. On the Second Sunday of Advent, two purple candles are illuminated: the original one and a new one, representing Peace. On the Third Sunday of Advent we add to those the rose candle, symbolizing Joy. And on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the third purple candle is illuminated, too, this one representing Love.

Advent is the beginning of the church year. It has another meaning, too: Arrival. And even if your Christmas celebration is a purely secular one, Advent has its place: Hope, peace, joy, love –– all those things that are represented by those purple and rose candles help us set the stage for the abundance that is Christmas. Hence Advent –– which used to begin on the 12th of November, the day after Martinmas and our annual time of remembering the dead –– being a time of preparation, a time of making our house as fair as we are able (as an old French Advent song goes). The house is literal, and it is figurative: we clean our home and prepare it for garland and a tree, but we are the house, as well, and before we can properly understand the joy and celebration of Christmas, it is helpful to acknowledge our need to feel those things, lest Christmas come off as too cloying, too sweet. The most wonderful time of the year? Yes, but let’s acknowledge the darkness, too. Let’s do that first. Let’s understand that it is light that pierces the darkness, a light that comes from within. Hide not your light under a bushel. And so it is a time, as well, to make amends, and to right wrongs.

The secular celebration of Advent is marked beautifully by daily Advent calendars and candles. The candles are marked with numerals 1 through 24, as are the calendars. These are Old World traditions that have their roots in Germany. I’ve had a traditional glittery Advent calendar from Germany most every year, since I was a kid, when my sister Marietta would bring one home for me at the start of each December from her job at a card and gift shop that was owned by an old German couple, Fred and Jean Beisner. So many of our family’s Christmas traditions still to this day come down to us from the Biesners. And this is why we sell traditional German Advent calendars at the Convivio Bookworks website, and daily English Advent candles, too: I loved these things from my childhood, and I hope you’ll love them, too. They are things no one needs, I know, and yet they help root us, and help us approach Christmas with sound footing.

I saved every one of those Advent calendars from my childhood, and even then, knew in my heart they were important enough that I should archive them by writing the date on the back. And here we are, all these years later, and here I am, a peddler of Advent calendars. You can still order yours today (we’ll ship them out today, too). You’ll have a few days of fun catching up to do, but so be it. If you’re local, order and choose the Local Free Delivery option if you’re in the coastal Lake Worth, Lantana, or West Palm Beach area, and I’ll bring it to you myself (by vintage Raleigh bicycle if you’re in my neighborhood), and you’ll definitely have your order in time for the First of December.

CHRISTMAS STOCK-UP SALE
Spend $75 on anything and everything in our catalog, and save $10 plus get free domestic shipping: a total savings of $19.50. Just use discount code STREETFAIR at checkout. Click here to shop! We always offer free domestic shipping when you spend $60 –– no discount code is required for that. I think you’ll be amazed at all you’ll find that’s new at our website, especially if you haven’t visited in a while!

COME SEE US!
We’ll be popping up at a few nearby pop-up markets this season, and if you’re local, we’d love to see you. We’ll be outdoors at all these markets… and these are some of our favorites: they are the most fun and festive each Christmas!

HOLIDAY NIGHT MARKET & FESTIVAL at SOCIAL HOUSE
Saturday December 4 starting at 6 PM at 512 Lucerne Avenue in Downtown Lake Worth Beach. Inspired by traditional European Christmas markets. We’ll have a tent in the outdoor courtyard with a large selection of our Advent and Christmas artisan goods from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico, Shaker culinary herbs and herbal teas, and some of our textiles from Kei & Molly Designs and Millie’s Tea Towels.

KRAMPUSNACHT at the AMERICAN GERMAN CLUB
Friday December 10 from 7 to 11 PM at 5111 Lantana Road in suburban Lake Worth. Tickets required. It’s the night before Christkindlmarkt and get a babysitter, because this one is for the adults. What once was meant to frighten youngsters into good behavior, Krampusnacht in Europe has taken a twist over the decades and become a fun night of mischief and dancing, as the Krampus of German legend takes over. Expect to see many Krampuses at this inaugural Krampusnacht celebration! Our largest pop-up shop ever, which will carry over into Christkindlmarkt the following two days, will include Advent candles and calendars, Christmas artisan goods from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico, Shaker culinary herbs and herbal teas and soaps, Millie’s Tea Towels, our new line of tea towels and reusable bags from Kei & Molly Designs, market bags from Mexico, and more.

CHRISTKINDLMARKT at the AMERICAN GERMAN CLUB
Saturday December 11 from 2 to 10 PM and Sunday December 12 from Noon to 8 PM at 5111 Lantana Road in suburban Lake Worth. A traditional German Christmas market. Tickets required. Our largest pop-up shop ever will include Advent candles and calendars, Christmas artisan goods from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico, Shaker culinary herbs and herbal teas and soaps, Millie’s Tea Towels, our new line of tea towels and reusable bags from Kei & Molly Designs, market bags from Mexico, and more.

Images: Scenes, front and back, from one of my first German Advent calendars: 1974.

 

 

Chanukah

The eight days of Hanukkah begin tonight, with this evening’s setting sun. Every time I write about Hanukkah, I feel a bit like I shouldn’t, for it’s always the same: I write about the latkes and the jelly doughnuts. What can I say? I like good food, and the things I can taste are the things I understand. I write, too, about light in dark times: eight nights of ever increasing light surely must be placed near the darkest time of the year for good purpose.

Be that as it may, I asked my good friend Judith Klau if she would be a guest blogger tonight for the Convivio Book of Days. To give us fresh perspective. But also because I love Judith and you would, too, if you knew her. She was a friend to Arthur Jaffe, whose collection of books evolved into the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, which I now direct. Judith volunteers there whenever she visits from Boston. Some of my favorite times at work are when I get to pair up with Judith to talk book arts with visitors. I’ve got the charm, somehow, but Judith’s got that plus the brains. We’ve shared this bookish connexion together for years. We’ve shared each other’s joys, and we’ve shared each other’s sorrows. When her partner Robert passed, Seth and I went to sit shiva with her. And last December, when we lost our pal Mike, who lived a rather solitary life, she was one of the few to come honor him and to spend time with us. I don’t think the wake and our Catholic ways were quite what she expected, but seeing Judith walk in warmed my heart.

When I asked her if she’d write some personal memory for Hanukkah, Judith got to work immediately and sent this. She apologized for not sending a memory but rather a screed. I had to pull down the dictionary to look up screed, which is how it goes sometimes when I chat with Judith. Already I had learnt something new, and I hadn’t even read her screed yet. Folks like Judith help make us better versions of ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the thoughts of Judith Klau (who has me wondering now about the choice of spelling I’ve been using for Hanukkah all these years). –– John

 

CHANUKAH
by Judith Klau

Chanukah. Ok, let’s start with the spelling. I like this one because it tries to replicate the Hebrew orthography, the “ch” at the beginning (that my Yiddish teacher says is like the “ch” in the Scottish “Loch,” which is like substituting one unknown algebraic equation for another unknown algebraic equation) and the unvoiced “h” at the end. Well, do with it what you will.

But that does lead me into the conundrum of Chanukah, which is that the best part of the story (and the worst part) is that the story probably isn’t true. Is Santa real? Was there a Christmas tree in Bethlehem? What’s your definition of “true”?

The story that I learned in Sunday school was that Bad Greeks desecrated the Holy Temple by bringing in pigs. (That was the unholiest thing anyone could think of for people deprived of bacon.) When a brave band of brothers [sic], led by the oldest, Judah Maccabee, vanquished said Greeks, they found that the eternal light had gone out with only one small cruet [sic] of oil for it remaining. Now the commandment for this light is one of the facets of this post-biblical holiday that is in fact found in the Hebrew Bible. So its importance at least is “true.”

The story continues that it was determined that the nearest source for holy oil was eight days away. The cruet, however, held enough oil for only one day. And the crux (a Christian word if ever there was one) of the story is that that tiny remnant of oil lasted for eight days, hence the Chanukah Miracle, hence the eight lights, the eight nights, the oil, etc.

I was in my 70’s before I heard anyone say different. Here’s a precis of one scholarly interpretation: during the historical period of hostilities between Greeks and Jews, there was no access to the Temple; the people therefore couldn’t observe one of the Biblical holidays, Sukkot, a harvest festival that lasts eight days. It may later have become conflated with Chanukah, and the new holiday took on the numerology of the old. The whole Chanukah megillah, a term from yet another holiday, is beautifully explained here, at Haaretz.com. Even though, by my lights, they use that funny spelling with all the k’s. There’s probably a website about that and another one about why Sukkot is eight days.

So here’s your choice: Chanukah without the story, or Christmas without the tree. Be a kid, which is when the eternal light of our best delight learns to shine, and make your own memories.

Sad but realistic P.S.: Embedded in this history is another eternal light: that Jews are always in danger of being absorbed into the majority culture. That to me is the essence of the historical Chanukah story, the scary part. So seeing Chanukah lights, hearing that Sunday school story repeated, even tacky Chanukah displays and simple-minded songs (etching themselves into my brain as if they had a red-light at the end of their nose) help to dissipate that particular scariness at this darkest time of the year.

Image courtesy of Judith Klau, who writes: “Here are my children eating the traditional food of the holiday, potato latkes (pancakes). They are purists and choose sour cream as a topping. Some people choose apple sauce, and this year I am SHOCKED to hear that people are putting ketchup on latkes. In Yiddish we call that a ‘shandeh,’ a disgrace!”

Opening image: Chanukah Candles photographed by Breslevmeir, 2020 [Public domainvia Wikimedia Commons.

In lieu of a brief bio of Judith Klau, here’s a brief video. It’s an excerpt from an oral history project about her time at the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, where Judith was the English Department Head. It’s got a little bit of all I love about Judith.

 

Deepest Joy

And now, the longest night arrives. With each passing day, since the Midsummer Solstice of June, we have been shaving a bit of daylight off our daily tally. By September’s equinox, day and night were balanced. Darkness continued to overtake light. On the 21st of December, though, our planet’s Northern Hemisphere will experience its longest night, and at 11:19 PM, Eastern Standard Time, its solstice moment, when things begin shifting again the other way. It is the constant rearrange, the back and forth of vast celestial mechanics, all based on the scientific fact that the Earth spins on its axis at a tilt of about 23.5 degrees. As we orbit the sun, that 23.5 degree tilt means that at this time of the year, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun as we spin, while the Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. Give things six months and we will find ourselves in the opposite situation, as the Northern Hemisphere will be tilted toward the sun. But that is summer, and this is not; this is winter. It begins by the almanac with the solstice, though traditionalists will view this point as midwinter, which is why many of us will stand in dark churches come Christmas Eve and sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” as tears well in our eyes. We are tapping into those old ways when we sing that song on these long dark nights, and still the circle proceeds: it is the round of the year, with no beginning and no end.

The solstice is linked inextricably with all the celebrations of light that revolve around it: Advent, Sankta Lucia, Yule, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Epiphany. We call down the light in each of them, to burn bright in the darkness. Light, a symbol of hope, of warmth, of kindness, of the passing of generations. Light is the central theme of Hanukkah, which begins with the setting sun this year on the 22nd, the day after the solstice. In ancient Jerusalem, during the defeat of oppressors by the Maccabbees, a small flask of oil, enough to keep the lamp of the Temple illuminated for a day, kept the lamp illuminated for eight days and nights. That miracle is commemorated each year during the eight nights of Hanukkah; each night, an additional candle is lit on the menorah. This year, that First Night of Hanukkah is met with the Fourth Sunday of Advent: we’ll be lighting all the candles of the advent ring: three purple candles and one rose candle, completing the circle of light, for Christmas is now just a few days away.

Our tradition each Midwinter Solstice night is to light a backyard fire in the copper fire bowl. We dispel the night, as the advent hymns tell us. The fuel for our fire is the remnant of last year’s Christmas tree, which we brought out to a corner of the yard some time after Twelfth Night last January. It’s sat there all these months, near the mango tree, shedding needles, drying, and still for all the world smelling like Christmas, even through spring and summer and fall, and it is good, it is right to have this reminder of Old Father Christmas in our lives all the year long. We will sit at the fire that he provides under the starry night sky and toast him with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. In this small way we pull down the celestial mechanics of our planet and bring it directly to our tiny dot in this universe, and into our hearts, too: the old Yuletide illuminating and welcoming the new, connecting us with the past as we continue to forge that circle, no beginning, no end. With it, we know that Christmas is surely almost here. And so we welcome the solstice and we welcome Yule. And we welcome all the celebrations of light around it.