I speak as a person who is spritual yet non-religious, but Jewish by birth, and who was born in Israel and lived there for the first 6 years of his life and for a total of almost 10 years.
What I would like to share is not so much a list of customs or history, or official aspects of the holiday, but personal memories, and even digging underneath the memories, to the personal experiences of one child, as perhaps reflecting what the holiday "is all about" in some deeper sense, ...looking for underlying human meaning that transcends the specifics.
So I've written a short narrative, called, Lights, Warmth, and Cellophane
To a child, cellophane is magical.
Or at least, to me it was.
I remember the first time I saw it.
It was in bright, beautiful decorations for Hanukkah.
Do you remember how vivid colors were, when you were a young child? Do you remember how shiny "shiny" was, and how smooth "smooth" was?
Do you remember decorations, or marbles, or colored lights or crayons or candy wrappers that were so bright, shiny, smooth, profoundly richly full of color, that a part deep within you wanted to eat them, to put them inside you forever?
It is with that kind of young child's intensity that those sights were stored in my memory (I have to confess that society has not been completely successful in extinguishing that child-like intense aesthetic reaction in me, despite the fact that that's not the thing one is supposed to do as an adult, or worse, a male adult, or worse, a professional adult male)
There they were. Tall, beautiful, bright red and yellow and orange -- and a little bit of blue and green too -- panels and strips of cellophane decorating the windows... and also, silver and gold, those colors that have so much non-monetary value and POWER behind them for a child... decorating also some costumes..
There I am in that old family photo, perhaps 3 or 4 years old, dressed as a candle, the silver and golden paper flame a crown on my head and on the heads of the others in my nursery.
Bright colors have a certain warmth to them, too. Especially when it's cold outside, like it is now for this young Israeli child which inhabits the dustier recesses of my memory.
How nice it is for this child, then, to be surrounded by the warmth of the indoors, away from wind and rain and cold ... to be surrounded by the warmth of light and cellophane and silver and gold glows ... to be surrounded by the warmth of companionship ... and when that child was older, the warmth of friendship and games, including Spin the Dreidel, of course.
The soft warm glow of Hanukkah candles...
The warm, moist, salty potato pancakes or LEVIVOT (I never heard of the Yiddish term "latkes" until coming to the US, and to this day it remains alien to these childhood memories). Yes, Levivot, and also those sweet, jelly-filled, sugar coated SOOFGANIYOT.
To feel that warmth in one's belly...that means more than the physical satisfaction of one's appetite; it is that ancient, spiritual comfort of knowing that "there is plenty", that there is a supply that is ample, that there is enough, and then some...that this is a time to let down one's guard and celebrate.
[Stepping back to the present]
We live in a world whose institutions often cut us off from knowing ourselves, from knowing our needs. Perhaps we can rediscover our needs by looking at some of the universal needs of children -- we are all children inside -- as seen in various holiday traditions.
When I first was exposed to Christmas there was little feeling of pressure to assimilate (whether the same holds in Delmarva, the jury is out) -- and because of this, it was easier to be open and to discover that there are similar underlying elements of warmth, of lights, of family and friends and food inside a warm shelter... Perhaps it is not very different with other traditions, either...
Though it may sound paradoxical, perhaps a good way to appreciate the differences and unique nature of Hanukkah (or another holiday that is not familiar to you) is to keep an open eye for similar elements. Never assuming that this or that must be "the same" or "analogous" of course -- but as for those human universals and those deeper themes like warmth and safety and lights and togetherness, those kinds of themes, which remind us of our universal brotherhood and sisterhood, and the universal nature of our spiritual journeys, perhaps they are a good place to start.
Narrative read at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Salisbury.