It was a magical night that is burned into my memory. Dec. 3, 1964 was our younger son’s fourth birthday. His older brother was soon to be 6 in just a few weeks, and our baby daughter was teetering between infancy and toddlerhood.
It was also Hanukkah, just like it will be this year. In 1964 it was the fifth day of the holiday, which is eight days and nights long, while this year it will be the first day. That is because Jewish holidays are reckoned on the traditional lunar calendar, which has 13 months. So Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, but that makes it shift annually on our Gregorian calendar. Because of this shift, the earliest Hanukkah can come is Nov. 28, while the latest is Dec. 27.
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Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt. It is observed for eight nights and days by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a menorah. One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. Each night, one additional candle is lit until the entire menorah is aglow. The eight candles represent the number of nights that oil continued to burn in the Eternal Lamp in the Temple, even though there appeared to be enough oil only for one night.
Families eat oil-based foods such as doughnuts and potato pancakes known as latkes to commemorate the occasion.
When I was a child the only gifts we received were little chocolate coins covered with gold foil paper. This was known as Hanukkah gelt, or money, and was greatly coveted. These days in competition with the commercialization of Christmas, the coins are still coveted, but customarily are accompanied by more substantial gifts.
Five years ago Hanukkah and Thanksgiving both came on Nov. 28. You will not see this confluence again due to the exigencies of the Jewish calendar plus an eleven minute glitch annually. Since the details of the explanation will make your head burst, just believe me when I tell you this will not reoccur for several thousand years. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
So back to that night 54 years ago. We were living in Connecticut. We lit the five colorful Hanukkah candles after sunset, as prescribed, and the children were wide-eyed as they watched the lights dancing as the draft from the furnace circulated to warm up the house in the frigid weather. Michael was also excited because it was his birthday. To celebrate the combined occasions we had gotten a gigantic plastic train set, which had seemingly hundreds of connecting tracks, cars and lots of scenery. Of course his older brother tried to take over immediately as we held back our baby daughter from getting into the action.
Just then I glanced out our living room window. Snowflakes had started to fall; they were blowing and billowing around the streetlight that was across from our house. There was no storm that night; it was just a flurry, so each flake appeared as a separate little miracle. The birthday, the glowing Hanukkah lights, the excitement of the children and the beautiful snowflakes left an image I will never forget.
This year on Dec. 3 we will again celebrate Hanukkah and remember Michael’s birthday and his brother, but there will be sadness accompanying the muted celebration because both Michael and Steven are gone, Michael at age 35 and Steven five years later at age 42. We will get together with our wonderful, loving daughter and her family and special friends. We will revel in the overwhelming and pervasive aroma of sizzling latkes that fills the house and settles in our hair and clothes. We will eat more than we should and sing the Hanukkah songs and even play the children’s dreidel game with an array of colorful spinning tops.
But our happiness will be muted with thoughts of what might have been — our sons and their families celebrating with us, cakes for their adjacent birthdays, perhaps more grandchildren to delight with Hanukkah gifts.
Francine M. Farber of Fresno is a retired school district administrator and now is a fulltime community volunteer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org