Why Hanukkah Makes Me Sad

I’m far from the first to rail against the commercialism of the holiday season, or the ill-advised attempts to make Hanukkah assimilate into Christmas. Even when I engage with Hanukkah on its own terms, I struggle. As a (literally) card-carrying socialist, I’m all about liberation movements. But the historical context of Hanukkah was more about a civil war than just deposing a tyrant, and I have a hard time getting excited about the fact that a movement of religious zealots were the ones who won.  

Yearning for the meaning I normally associate with this winter season, I’ve guiltily tried dipping my toes back into the Christmas spirit. After all, my parents and I always made a point of celebrating Christmas without “Christ or mass” when I was in elementary school. If it’s an American holiday I’ve personally related to without Christ or mass, why shouldn’t it provide meaning now? While I still find the lights beautiful and the smell of pine soothing, somehow this too seems to be missing a spark. Christmas-ish feels hollow. Spending Christmas with my Dad’s extended Christian family feels right, of course, because it’s about spending time with loved ones. But opening up an advent calendar and counting down the days till the 25th? Singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer loudly and off-key? Those feel like they belong to a past iteration of a self who no longer exists.

Reluctantly, I’m coming to realize that it might be Hanukkah-or-bust for me, now. 

But Hanukkah feels equal parts sad and joyous. My first deep memories related to the holiday come from being in college and suddenly feeling profoundly lonely on those eight nights. Jewish friends (and anyone else who was interested) would come over to my apartment to light candles, and I’d feel both the warmth of those around me and the peculiar isolation that came from feeling separate from most of my non-Jewish peers. That being said, I would never want to interact only with those who are Jewish (or impose my Judaism on others). Many of the people in my life whom I am closest to, whose friendships I am deeply grateful for and have been transformed by, are who they are because they have different life experiences than my own. But because I find Abraham Joshua Heschel’s concept of sacred time compelling and personally meaningful, I feel sorrow in not being able to share my sacred time with many of those closest to me. There is something slightly jarring in going from sharing a calendar with my peers (the countdown to the end of the semester, for instance), to suddenly very much not sharing a calendar. That jarring sense is made all the more heightened by the fact that, when Christmas was my winter holiday, I was in sync with the hegemonic mood of the country. 

Perhaps I will find something newly joyful in the holiday when celebrating with my family that I haven’t been able to discover previously. I hope I do. But even if I don’t, I think there is something meaningful, if not especially enjoyable, with wrestling with Hanukkah’s timing as synecdoche for my proudly diasporic experience of being Jewish in America. 

 Amelia Dornbush is Lilith’s Malka Foundation Fellow.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.