It's that time of year again, when pre-Christmas celebrations fill up my social media feeds. This year, Chanukah starts on 22nd December and lasts for eight days, so it 'clashes' with Christmas Day (two years ago, it started on Christmas Eve). We won't have a Christmas tree, but we will have a lit menorah and other Chanukah goodies. I originally wrote this post two years ago. But it seems relevant to post it again - with yet another update.
At this time of year I sometimes feel like a trespasser. A ghostly apparition peering through a smudged window into a tinsel-draped world I'm not really part of.
Christmas: Outside looking in
On the outside looking in.
Here, but not here.
I watch the fervent build up and read frantic discussions on social media from the sidelines. Present buying. Christmas trees. Delicious festive treats. Large family meals. I don't join in, but that doesn't mean I don't understand your stress and excitement. I have my fair share during the year, with the weekly Jewish Sabbath and several Jewish festivals (with a strong focus on food!).
I've never celebrated Christmas.
During my childhood, December 25th was simply a family day with a large lunch, as there was little else to do. No Christmas tree. No presents. No Christmas pudding. We would still eat turkey though, along with home-made stuffing, brussels sprouts and minced pies. I remember Christmas crackers on the table and watching festive TV. After all, that's what everyone did at 'this time of year'.
I knew all about Christmas, don't get me wrong. I had plenty of friends who celebrated it - non-Jewish ones and Jewish ones - and I didn't go to a Jewish school. I didn't take part in the annual Nativity play but would watch the rehearsals from the sidelines, learning the songs and the lines, just as I watch the build up to Christmas now. I didn't go to the school carol services either (we had a day off instead - shopping or cinema, if I remember right, though we were probably meant to do school work(!)). Yet I knew all of the carols anyway.
I guess not much has changed.
For me, this time of year has always been about Chanukah (Hanukkah), the Jewish festival of lights, which lasts for eight days. A festival of miracles and hope and joy. Unlike Christmas, Chanukah doesn't occur on a set date each year, as it's determined by the Hebrew calendar. One year, it may be in November, and the next year in December. This year it begins on 22nd December as soon as darkness falls.
In keeping with tradition, each night we will light candles on a nine-branched Menorah (also called a Chanukiah), an extra candle each night (with the ninth candle called a Shamash (helper) to light the others).
There's a whole Rugrats episode devoted to this!
At Chanukah, it's traditional to eat fried foods - especially doughnuts (donuts) and latkes (fried potato pancakes like rosti) - and to play a game with a dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) for coins, nuts or chocolate.
We can buy Chanukah biscuits (including candle or dreidel shaped ones).
Chanukah is often associated with presents, but that's not a Jewish tradition so I assume it's down to the influence of Christmas over the generations. We give money called Chanukah gelt (or chocolate coins) to children, as well as to charity. You can now buy Chanukah decorations, as sparkly as the Christmas ones, and lots of crazy Chanukah-themed items.
Even Chanukah socks last year (no, I didn't buy them).
Chanukah is also a time for community, with activities and celebrations at our synagogue. Last year we had our second interfaith event with the local church - our rabbi lit a large menorah as the vicar beside him switched on the Christmas tree lights. There were Jewish songs and carol singers, and mulled wine and minced pies and kosher donuts for the children. This year, it's a little different due to the timing, as the Christmas lights are already lit. But our synagogue is still doing a communal Chanukah lighting, encouraging people of all faiths to come along.
Some people worry they'll offend me if they wish me Happy Christmas. But not at all.
People who know I'm writing fiction often ask me what I'm writing.
I used to be suitably vague and didn't say much about what I'm doing or what stage I'm at. But last year, I was more open about the fact that I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction, set in a fictional multi-cultural town in Hertfordshire, UK. I'm very open about my Jewish heritage and proud of it too. My book happens to be set at this time of year - Chanukah and Christmas season.
I finished my novel, The Redeemer, earlier this year. Here's the blurb:
‘REPENT BEFORE YOU DIE … OR MAY YOU NEVER R.I.P.’
Threatening plaques, vigilante killings, a Jewish community - what’s the link?
The clock is ticking to the next murder.
After journalist Shanna Regan witnesses an antisemitic incident in Hillsbury, a small Hertfordshire town, she uncovers a series of threatening fake commemorative plaques. Each plaque highlights someone’s misdemeanour rather than a good deed. Delving deeper, she realises these plaques are linked to vigilante killings spanning several decades, with ties to the local Jewish community. As her search for the truth becomes personal, she puts her own life in danger.
Can she stop the next murder in time?
I was first runner up (honourable mention) in the DHH Literary Agency New Voices Award at the end of September 2019, as announced at the Capital Crime festival's opening night party. I've had great feedback on my novel and I'm now looking for an agent - the right agent - or a publisher.
I'm hoping that one day you'll get a chance to read my novel (if you want to!) and learn more about Jewish traditions, the worrying rise of anti-semitism in the UK (what it's like to experience it for real 'on the frontline', not what you read in the newspapers) and the huge sense of family and community spirit that I know so well.
2019 has also been exciting on the work front. In January, I launched my own work website (finally). You can visit it here. I also started proofreading for publishers - including Orenda Books - and individual authors, and I added several magazines and websites to my health writing portfolio.
I was one of Jewish Book Week 2019's official blog partners and hope to do the same in 2020.
Thank you for reading to the end of this non-bookish post and for supporting Off-the-Shelf Books, which turns five on 30th December 2019. I'm very behind with reviews, but hope to catch up soon - it's been a particularly busy few months.
I wish you all a Happy Christmas, Happy Chanukah or whatever you're celebrating within the next few weeks. And a Happy New Year too.