It's almost time to fire up the big menorah in the public square.
It's time for office workers to mix blue-and-silver Hanukkah decorations with symbols of Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice and, this year, Ramadan. It's time for school children to fry potato-and-onion pancakes and spin four-sided dreidels with Hebrew letters that stand for "a great miracle happened here." It's time for parents to max out their charge cards.
Party planners can find many alleged "carols" on the Internet, such as this revised Santa Claus verse: "They're grinding their swords, sharp as a pin, a guerilla war, they're going to win. Maccabees are coming to town." Let's skip the even sillier "Eight Days of Fire," sung to the Jerry Lee Lewis classic.
The bottom line is that the eight-day "festival of lights" begins at sundown on Thursday, Dec. 21. For millions this has evolved into a super-holiday matched one-on-one in a cultural showdown with Christmas.
Hanukkah is here, but what are folks all fired up about?
"The problem, as any rabbi will tell you, is that Hanukkah has traditionally been a minor Jewish festival," observed Columbia University historian David Greenberg, at Slate.com. "It commemorates the successful Israelite revolt in the second century B.C. against their Syrian oppressors, and their refusal to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture. Specifically, it celebrates the miracle in which, according to lore, a day's worth of oil fueled the candelabra of the Jew's rededicated temple for eight days."
Hanukkah has a unique message, but one that often is drowned out as millions -- of all races and creeds -- stampede to the shopping mall. Many say that Hanukkah celebrates religious liberty and religious pluralism. Others emphasize its message that Jews must defend the purity of their faith, when they are tempted to assimilate into a dominant culture.
I found myself dwelling on this second Hanukkah theme during a Dec. 8 press conference by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. This was not a Hanukkah event -- but it could have been. Around the world, religious minorities are under attack when they refuse to buckle under to oppressive majority regimes.
This commission accused U.S. officials of timidly defending religious liberty. For example, a State Department report in 1999 criticized seven "countries of "particular concern" -- Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and particular movements in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. The commission pressed, unsuccessfully, for the inclusion of four more in the 2000 report -- Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. It must be hard for U.S. diplomats to admit the situation is getting worse, instead of better.
The commission's Dec. 8 critique included reports on abuses in all of those lands and more. In Iran, four Baha'is have been sentenced to death for apostasy and "Zionist Baha'i activities." In China, violent crackdowns continue on the Falun Gong movement and Protestant and Catholic churches that refuse to kneel before state. Regional officials in China executed at least eight Uigher Muslims on charges of "splitting the country."
The list goes on and on. Efforts to control religious minorities can be seen in Russia, where legislation threatens to the "liquidation" of thousands of small religious groups. Even the French National Assembly has created a list of 173 "dangerous sects" -- including the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church and even some Baptists -- that could be shut down if believers are caught committing crimes of "mental manipulation."
"Even the Europeans are headed in the wrong direction," said Jewish conservative Elliott Abrams, chairman of the religious freedom commission. "What's even worse is how that is going to be cited by (regimes) that are aggressively oppressing their religious minorities. They'll be saying, 'Look, we're modeling parts of our laws on what they're doing in Belgium and France.' "
The most appropriate time to remember the plight of oppressed religious minorities is the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, said Abrams. But it sure wouldn't hurt if this solemn, and historically accurate, theme appeared amid the glitter of "the holidays."
"Hanukkah is the festival of freedom," he said. "But what often gets lost is that this meant freedom or DEATH. ... Millions of believers around the world face the same choice today."