At this time of the 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. On the outside looking in. Here, but not here.
I watch the fervent build up and read the 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 really do, as I have my fair share during the year.
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 the 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 - as 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, just as I watch the build up now, so I guess not much has changed. I didn't go to the school carol services either (we had a day off instead), yet I knew all of the carols anyway.
For me, this time of the 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 12th December - Tuesday evening - as soon as dark 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). So one candle on the first night, two on the second and so on, until all eight candles are twinkling in a row. The candles symbolise a miracle in the second century BCE, when a handful of Jews defeated the Greeks to reclaim back their Holy Land and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. When they wanted to light the Temple's Menorah, there was only enough oil for one day - yet miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, known as the miracle of Chanukah.
At Chanukah, it's traditional to eat fried foods - especially doughnuts 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 give money called Chanukah gelt (or chocolate coins) to children, as well as to charity. Chanukah is often associated with presents, but that's not a Jewish tradition so I assume it's the influence of Christmas. You can now even buy Chanukah decorations, as sparkly as the Christmas ones.
As a child, I would receive one Chanukah present each night (some small, some large), as did my two boys when they were younger. Now they are teenagers, the eight-present tradition has faded away in our house. But not the candle lighting - never that.
Here, Chanukah is also a time for community, with activities and celebrations at our Synagogue each year. This year we will have an interfaith event with the local church for the first time - our Rabbi will light a large Menorah as the vicar beside him switches on Christmas tree lights. There will be mulled wine and kosher minced pies and doughnuts.
Some people worry they'll offend me if they wish me Happy Christmas. But not at all. When I say I'm on the outside looking in, I don't mean this in a negative way. I enjoy watching friends building up to their big event of the year - my Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with that positivity. After the last year of world politics, we all need plenty of that.
As I mentioned above, I do understand the exhilaration and delight, the stresses and strains. Every Friday, I prepare for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), which seems like the equivalent of a mini-Christmas break, just without the tree and the presents and the festive TV. Friday morning involves the obligatory 'challah rush' at the local kosher bakery, along with a mad dash to the kosher butcher and the deli. (Challah is the plaited slightly sweet 'Jewish' bread, if you don't know, and tastes a little like brioche.) Then on a Friday, I'm often cooking one, or sometimes two, three-course (or even four-course) meals by mid-afternoon - for just the four of us, or sometimes for up to 12 or more if we have guests.
Then we also have all the other Jewish festivals, from our month-long 'festive' season in September/October to Passover (eight days) in March/April, which involves upheaval of the entire house - the original 'spring clean' (don't get me started on all the stress involved).
People who know I'm writing fiction often ask me what I'm writing. I'm often suitably very vague. But the truth is that I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction, and plan to finish this WIP in 2018. I'm very open about my Jewish heritage and proud of it too. So assuming I finish this book, maybe one day you'll learn more about Jewish traditions and the huge sense of family and community spirit that I know so well.
This should be a happy time of the year. A time for families, long-lasting friendships, peace and harmony. A time for families to get together and put aside their differences - hopefully a time for friends to resolve their differences too.
I wish you all a Happy Christmas, Happy Chanukah or whatever you're celebrating. Thank you for reading to the end of this non-bookish blog post and for supporting my blog, which turns three on 30th December 2017.