Hanukkah and Christmas overlap this year, with the first night of Hanukkah falling on Sunday, Dec. 22, two days before Christmas Eve. This proximity will bring more attention to the Jewish holiday. That means you can count on Hanukkah frequently being described as “the Jewish Christmas,” and that you’ll hear references to a “Hanukkah bush,” even though there’s no such plant.
The reality, of course, is that the two holidays have nothing in common. Christmas, despite its over-commercialization and endless shopping season, remains a deeply religious holiday for Christians. Hanukkah, in contrast, is a time to celebrate our history, but it isn’t a religious observance on par with the Jewish calendar’s heavyweight holidays.
Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE, a triumph that allowed the Jewish people to practice their religion again after their oppressors had outlawed it. Christmas, of course, heralds the birth of Jesus, the founder of Christianity.
But one thing that both holidays do share is the use of the word “miracle.” Hanukkah is associated with one main miracle, but others are possible ones as well.
In a lighthearted quiz I wrote in a column for this publication two years ago, I included the following question, which asks readers to choose the miracle of Hanukkah:
A. The Maccabees defeated a much larger military force and became the era’s superheroes.
B. A one-day supply of oil kept the menorah lit eight days.
C. People developed a renewed interest in practicing their religion.
D. The temple was cleaned up quickly, and was rededicated.
The answer is “B” – but all four options could be considered miracles.
That got me thinking about how we’d define miracles in 2019, a time when cynicism and skepticism rule and when public discourse is at an all-time low due to an almost complete lack of civility and common courtesy.
So, in no particular order, here are some modern-day “miracles” from our daily lives that are worthy of celebration:
• Health: People are living longer, and more people are living fuller lives. There are older people exercising, running, swimming and being incredibly active. For example, The Boston Globe recently published a story about an 85-year-old Vermont woman, Flo Filion Meiler, who is a world-champion pole vaulter and accomplished track and field athlete.
• Gathering with family and friends: Yes, sometimes family gatherings are tough to manage, with frayed nerves and conflicts dominating, but just the fact that families are spending time together should be considered nothing short of miraculous. The past two years, my wife and I enjoyed vacations with both of our children – no small feat considering that one is a full-time teacher and the other is in college.
• Freedom: It’s easy to worry about the future direction of the country given the vituperative nature of American politics, especially as we head into a turbulent 2020 presidential campaign. But we should nonetheless rejoice in the fact that despite all the noise that we hear from our leaders, we live in a nation where we ultimately settle our differences at the polls, not with bloodshed in the streets.
• Social media: It’s easy to complain about the many downsides of social media. We rightfully tire of the endless nasty Twitter posts, and we worry about being taken in by Facebook hacks. But there’s a kinder, gentler side to social media. Millions of parents and grandparents, for example, use social media to stay in contact with their far-flung children and grandchildren. My wife and I, for instance, frequently use FaceTime to connect with our older daughter, who is teaching abroad.
• Simple pleasures: The world seems a much calmer place when you take the time to enjoy nature’s wonders. Witnessing a gorgeous sunset, for example, remains truly miraculous.
• Volunteers: When people make a conscious decision to work together to help others, it’s not only a mitzvah, it’s also a miracle. Feeding the hungry, donating to gift drives, working at soup kitchens or food pantries and participating in fundraisers are all modern-day miracles, as is volunteering for nonprofits and synagogues.
• Everyday miracles: Drivers who obey the speed limit, stop at red lights and actually drive courteously qualify as miracles given that they’re so rare.
There are undoubtedly myriad other daily miracles out there – seeing a newborn son or daughter, or a grandson or granddaughter, for example. However, the larger point is that regardless of how bad it seems out there, there are good things happening.
That’s something to remember as you prepare to recite the Hanukkah blessings, light the menorah and chow down on latkes made from a top-secret – and miraculous – family recipe.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.