Updated: Nov 29, 2021
“Unless we know the value of other religious traditions, it is difficult to develop respect for them. Mutual respect is the foundation of genuine harmony.” — Dalai Lama
Written by Leslie Criss
Photograph by Joe Worthem
As a little girl, when Christmastime rolled around — much more slowly than it does now, it seemed — Lizzie Horn Elementary School was abuzz with excitement. There were rooms to be decorated, parties to be planned, carols to be practiced, names to be drawn for the exchanging of gifts. And to ice that already delicious cake: the anticipation of two weeks of Christmas vacation.
By the second or third week of December, my little elementary school heart was about to burst with pure joy. But there were always the whispers. Among the teachers and among those of our mamas who took on the helpful roles of “room mothers.”
Seems somewhere in our midst were classmates who’d be absent the days of the Christmas programs and parties. When our curious choruses of “why?” threatened to drive the teachers out from their minds, one offered an answer: “They don’t believe in Christmas.”
It was not a good answer, then or now. To us kids, it served as a wall-builder, pushing us to further exclude those we did not understand. How, after all, could anyone not “believe” in all that is Christmas as I knew it?
More than a decade ago in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I gained a clearer understanding of an observance different, in some ways, from my own holiday traditions. My understanding came from participation.
My friend Lesley Silver invited me to become part of a tradition she’d started in 1977 — inviting friends who weren’t Jewish to her family’s Hanukkah celebration. It was a tradition that caught fire and still burns brightly, I have no doubt, all these years later.
Perhaps I was a bit anxious as I walked up Cherry Street just before a December sundown to Lesley’s house on the hill. After all, I wasn’t sure what lay ahead.
But as soon as I walked into the light of Lesley’s kitchen, smelled the beef brisket and potato latkes cooking and felt the welcoming warmth that always wraps itself around the fellowship of friends, I knew my anxiety was for naught.
After the meal that included homemade applesauce and cheese blintzes, we followed Lesley into the living room where the Hanukkah lights on the menorah were lit. With the lighting of each candle, one for each of the eight nights of the Feast of Lights, or Hanukkah, blessings were said in Hebrew.
Lesley, though by her own admission not a scholar when it comes to Judaism, explained her own interpretation of the observance and the gift giving.
When I left Lesley’s house that night, the candle of the first night of Hanukkah still burning inside, I thought of that long-ago elementary school teacher and her quick, confusing answer to a short, but complex question.
And as I walked toward my own home, where my Christmas tree glowed, I smiled at the grace and glory of enlightenment.