With Thanksgiving behind us, we are now officially in society’s designated holiday season. As Jews and Americans we are recipients of 2 holiday seasons, each seeming to be at least a month long. The Jewish community’s holiday season starts with Rosh Hashanah and ends 23 days later with Simchat Torah, the celebration of starting over again with the telling of the story of life through the teachings of the Torah.
American society’s holiday season lasts longer in its start with Thanksgiving and its closure with New Year’s Day. Each season has a common focus of gratitude for life’s blessings with the latter indicating that at this time of year we want to be particularly mindful of sharing our bounty with those lacking material blessing. At least, that is the theory.
The reality is that unlike the Jewish holiday season which is grounded in the Torah’s teaching us to connect with God and values of caring that we are responsible to engage year round, the American holiday season is more “seasonal” and more significantly has been coopted by retail’s need to play on the gift giving mode and encourage people to shop until they drop.
The fact that Christmas has been overtaken by the commercial focus on gift buying is indicative of the key difference between the two seasons. Judaism’s remains at its core a spiritual process of reflection, redirection and recommitment to values of responsibility and caring. America’s has transformed a spiritual holiday specifically for Christians into a secular mode of consumerism and even deification of commercialism.
What is lost in the commercialization of the December holiday period is symbolized by what has been happening with Thanksgiving, with Black Friday recently extended to stores taking away from us the one purely American holiday we can all celebrate now diminished with shoppers rushing out for bargains instead of being with families/friends to pause on that day for gratitude for all of America’s unique blessings.
It is the blessing piece that has been lost in the last month of the year. Instead of Thanksgiving launching more than a month of gratitude for the unique freedom this country provides its citizens, we have exchanged gratitude for what we have for ongoing advertisements reminding us of what we lack and what we need to do to feed a buying frenzy that turned a spiritual time of year into a time to fuel the economy and make or break the bottom lines of countless retail outlets.
The spiritual path, as Judaism teaches it, starts with the early morning Birchot HaShachar, expressions of appreciation for the countless blessings that can be lost and overlooked in the rush of each day. The spiritual path accentuates what goes well, what we have, and the people we cherish and remember not to take for granted. It is this spiritual orientation that teaches and reminds us that whatever blessings we have are meant to be shared, not seasonally, but every day and year round. It parallels the notion that it is not enough to honor mothers one Sunday a year in May and fathers one Sunday a year in June, but to do so every day, that we are to live values of responsibility and caring not just when a holiday, or Shabbat, tells us to do so, but all the time.
The secular holiday season has not only taken away the focus on remembering the importance of caring throughout the year; it has turned it in an unhealthy direction, suggesting that the haves do not yet have enough and perhaps never will. In the interest of spurring the economy through the songs of holiday cheer at this time, the holiday season has diminished our awareness of caring and sharing and has forced us to look within and ask not how we can do more for others, but whether we are doing enough to assure our own happiness during this time of designated joy and good will that is now determined by spending more than is necessary in efforts to buy some good cheer.
More valuable than anything you can own and any new toy that can make you temporarily happy is to keep Sukkot in mind, even as Chanukah was in the eyes of the Maccabees a delayed Sukkot. The bases for happiness are your relationships and the people you can cherish and for whom you are grateful; it is the understanding that what makes you special and worthy is how you are needed and in a unique position to fill needs around you, especially at this time of year.
In the end, Chanukah, from a Jewish point of view, becomes our barometer for how we are doing in this holiday season: do we celebrate it as intended, to be a reminder of keeping strong hold on the values of your spiritual tradition in spite of pressures to assimilate and do as the others? Or do we allow the commercialism of this time of year to dilute it and diminish it as it becomes a Jewish alternative for buying happiness and enabling us to fit into the December season that has turned away from gratitude for life’s blessings into a celebration of materialism that leaves the most vulnerable people and the ones that most need material blessing, out in the cold?
As you light the Chanukah candles this month, ask yourself and your families how the light of the Menorah reflects the important lights in your life. Where is the gratitude for life’s blessings and how do we remember that were it not for Chanukah, none of this holiday season would exist…for there would have been no Christmas? Let’s be sure to ask the right questions so that we can come up with healthier answers and remember to hug dear ones even tighter at this time of year.