My favourite memories of growing up in a warm, traditional Jewish household, are those relating to Chanukah. Every year, the extended family would get together one evening of the eight, light Chanukiot, eat potato latkes and doughnuts and exchange gifts. If I close my eyes, I can picture the table in my parents home, set up next to the big windows and covered by Chanukiot. We were eight cousins and eight parents - a small family by most standards, but the light and joy generated by those gatherings is something that I have treasured down the years.
The cousins grew up and left home - 2 of us are now in Israel, another in Australia, 1 has married out, the remainder are at University, 2 of the parents have passed away - those wonderful Chanukahs live in memory only. Similar evenings are, I'm sure, repeated in thousands of households all over the world and will hopefully start in my own household before too long.
Since making Aliyah, 8 1/2 years ago, Chanukah has lost its attraction for me somewhat - it is a festival that I have largely spent alone. Presents have been sent by Amazon or through friends and relatives who happened to be travelling at the right time. I have kindled the lights alone on most occasions. My Chanukah memories are largely negative - my first Chanukah in Israel, I lit the last night with my father who was visiting, a few days before he passed away; Chanukah in the army - lighting in the freezing cold desert and munching on soggy doughnuts and other than those 2 memories I'm pressed to remember what I have done on other Chanukahs.
Last year marked the start of a new era however; a return to the ghosts of Chanukahs past if you like. Last Chanukah I met, for the first time, the family who have since become my in-laws. This year was even more full on - I was a full fledged member of the family. We exchanged gifts, made sufganiyot, ate a festive meal together - a Chanukah in short, like those which I remember from my childhood.
The warmth which is generated by lighting Chanukah lights together has nothing to do with the sum of the heat given off by the individual lights. Chagim spent alone are nowhere near as joyous as those which are spent with those who you really love. It is just another bonus of getting married that I have gained a whole new family, including grandparents, which I have not had for 15 years.
The overwhelming stereotype of Christmas is that it is something of a chore - one where families get together, not of their own volition, but because it is expected. My experience of the Chagim has always been far more positive - families getting together because that is what they want to do - perhaps it is something to do with the stress that Judaism places on the importance of family life.
This year, I truly reconnected to Chanukah. On Friday night we stood at a table by the window and lit seven Chanukiahs and then joined together in singing Maoz Tzur - it was a wonderful throwback to the Chanukah of my childhood, a rekindling of my love for a Chag which I hope will never be extinguished again.