Category Archives: Hanukkah

Add Your Light to the Sum of Light

The midwinter solstice comes to the Northern Hemisphere at 4:48 PM Eastern time today, this 21st of December. Our nights have been getting longer each day since the midsummer solstice last June, and now we reach the longest night as the Northern Hemisphere reaches its point of maximum tilt away from the sun. That tilt makes for extremely long dark nights around the Arctic Circle and through all the lands that sit near the top of the globe, with gradually lesser extreme as we approach the equator, and on the other side of the equator, it is, of course, the opposite. There, it is the midsummer solstice, and the longest day.

All through Advent and soon Christmas and Yule and Kwanzaa and Chanukah, too, we respond to these darkest nights by adding our own light. More candles, more fairy lights, more warm glowing hearths. And in the process, our hearts grow open, as we add our light to the sum of light.

My friend Caren Neile has recorded a Chanukah tale called “The Scent of Latkes” for the online bedtime stories series I host, Stay Awake: Bedtime Stories for Kids & Sleepy Adults. Her story is brilliant! Stay awake with Caren and with all our other readers and storytellers by clicking here. Caren’s is the seventh episode so far!

Image: the tree we brought home just a few nights ago, illuminated, not yet decorated. Ornaments soon!



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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.




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


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 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.