Still Burning

I am and always have been a big fan of the winter holidays. Though I am not religious in the usual sense, nor much of a theist, I am a big champion of the power of story, metaphor, and ritual. I’ve written in this space before about some of the various meditations and lessons and meanings I’ve gotten from observing solstice and Christmas.

I also, having grown up with it, observe Chanukah. Connection to my heritage and a an excuse light more candles could be said to be enough reason to celebrate it, but for years now I’ve been grasping for what my relationship is to the story. Having it be a sort of stand-in for just another variation on light-in-the-darkness seemed weak.

With the Christmas story, focusing on getting into the details of the actual story over the miracle of a virgin birth of a savior is where I’ve found the most meaning—what it means to be far from home, with nowhere to go, giving birth in a stable; the choice to carry a pregnancy whose source is unknown and what that would mean for the people involved and their relationships; the idea of seeing power and salvation coming into the world in the form of a helpless baby instead of in the form of a great general or priest. (I interact with Passover similarly.)

But with Chanukah (as with many other parts of the Christian story) the details of the story are harder for me, personally, to work with. Both before and after they got into power, the Maccabees were as much about being religious extremists killing Jews (or, Israelites technically, since the Israelites hadn’t split into Christians and Jews yet) who weren’t orthodox enough as they were about being anti-imperialist forces. It can be a good exercise in celebrating the good parts of historical figures while not white-washing them, which is an important and frequently relevant exercise. But it’s not so inspiring for a winter holiday celebration.

Which leaves the miracle itself. Some oil burning for a longer time than expected. If you take it literally, on the scale of miracles out there, not the most dramatic. But these things aren’t literal. Coming this year to the holiday season feeling on a personal level rather more like I’m coming out of a civil war and trying to clean up the wreckage than usual, I found a different kind of meaning in the oil lasting than I’d had before.

I had been looking for it to be a joyful, triumphant miracle. But not all miracles are like that. Some are miracles of the “it’ll be a miracle if we make it through this intact” variety, and when you do, technically intact, but bloodied and numb, with tattered clothes and recurring nightmares, it takes a certain kind of fortitude to turn around and celebrate that fact.

We all burn Chanukah oil sometimes, when there’s just no other option but to keep going even though we don’t have it in us, because the alternative would be worse. It’s not healthy to live like that always, but it’s often a kind of miracle that we can do so when we need to for the proverbial eight days it takes to replenish ourselves, to get help, to change the situation.

And recognizing it as a miracle might also help us be more compassionate to ourselves and others when we don’t always pull it off, and think about ways to make sure it’s not an expectation we build into our ideas of “normal,” whether in our workplaces, our social safety net, or our families.

I know Chanukah is long past this year already, but for everyone, as we head into the darkest time of the year, I honor the times you’ve struggled forward on fuel you pulled from nowhere, and may your new years not require that kind of miracle.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Dec. 19, 2013.)

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