Christmas cheers can trigger holiday blues for some Jews

Gail Appleson is a freelancer who lives in St. Louis. She is a member of Kol Rinah. 

By Gail Appleson

There are tons of articles describing how omnipresent Christmas festivities can cause or exacerbate depression among Christians. But the phenomenon, known as the holiday blues, also affects Jews.

It’s irrelevant that Christmas — the centerpiece of the season — is not our holiday. There’s just no escaping the ubiquitous decorations that appear earlier and earlier every year, the Christmas music that seems to follow you wherever you go, and the TV commercials featuring family gift exchanges and fancy holiday feasts.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, it’s a particularly tough time of the year if you don’t have family nearby, you’re mourning the death of loved ones or are going through other traumas, including serious illness and job loss. The sights and sounds of Christmas are simply unavoidable. It’s often bad enough feeling like an outsider this time of year, but if you’re going through a challenging period, it also means watching others celebrate when you’re suffering or worried about the future.

Going through a rough patch myself, I know it’s difficult to get your head in a place where you can find peace this time of year. That’s why I think it’s important to share a story that I heard at a recent meeting of Shalom Amigos, the Latino-Jewish Dialogue Group of St. Louis. The dialogue group, which is a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council, participated in a discussion of “Seasonal Celebrations: Lady of Guadalupe and Hanukkah.” While I expected to learn plenty about the former, I figured I would already know about the latter. Well, I was wrong about my knowledge of the Festival of Lights.

There are different stories about why we light eight candles, and they don’t all involve the Macabees, the rededication of the Temple and how oil thought to last only one day miraculously burned for eight.

During the dialogue meeting, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the JCRC, shared an account of the festival of Hanukkah that focuses on Adam from the Book of Genesis.  

According to the narrative in the Talmud, said Picker Neiss, Adam realized that darkness was falling sooner and sooner during the winter and he believed this was punishment for the sin of eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. He feared that the light would eventually disappear completely. As a result, he started an eight-day fast. 

But then he noticed the days started to get longer again and celebrated with an eight-day festival. Adam began to understand that the winter’s early darkness was “the way of the world” and not tied in any way to his actions.

My takeaway from this story is that we, as human beings, have a natural desire to be in control of our surroundings and tend to believe that our behavior can result in a certain an outcome. While that is true in some cases, it certainly isn’t in all.  You can beat yourself up all you want, but in the end, sometimes you just can’t change what’s going to happen. 

What really touched me about the story is that Adam’s experience supposedly occurred at the darkest time of the year. And then, miraculously, the light began to return. 

So this year, Hanukkah will take on a new and personal meaning for me. After being in a very dark place, I look forward to lighting each of those eight candles and embracing the hope and promise of their collective glow.