Photo and text by Sue Rollyson

The holiday season is full of many joyous celebrations. I attended two of perhaps the lesser-known observances. 

On Saturday evening, Dec. 17, around 70 people gathered at the Third Street Center for a community celebration of Chanukah (Hanukkah) with an early lighting of the menorahs that were brought by the families in attendance and a potluck feast. Chanukah officially started at sundown the next evening, Dec. 18, and is celebrated for eight nights. It is referred to as the Festival of Lights and is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah (a candelabra with nine candles), traditional foods (latkes and applesauce), games (dreidel) and gifts. 

“Chanukah” means “dedication” in Hebrew and occurs on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle. It frequently overlaps with Christmas, situated on the Gregorian calendar based on a solar year. Although the holiday is based on a story from Israelite history, many Jewish festivals also have a meaning associated with nature, in this case the winter solstice. Therefore, it is no surprise that people attended both the Chanukah gathering and the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist solstice celebration on the following morning. 

This observance borrowed and combined rituals from the Judeo-Christian and pagan traditions. They honored Chanukah by telling its story, lit a chalice to honor the orbiting of the sun and the planets, cast a circle to honor the indigenous Nuche people and called upon the guardians of the four directions, represented by animal totems. 

On slips of paper, people wrote down what they want more of in 2023 and what they want to let go of. Those papers were placed into a wreath which was ceremoniously burned in the bonfire at the end of the spiral dance. The dance is a symbolic pagan ritual. People join hands as the dance moves in a counterclockwise circle, winding toward its center. The circuits grow ever smaller, just as the days get shorter toward the end of the year. Near the center, at the point that represents the solstice, the dance turns and moves clockwise. This brings people in the community face-to-face with every other person. Eventually, everyone spirals back out to form a circle around the bonfire. 

Two Rivers Unitarian Universalists also related the history of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when people decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery. It was a week-long holiday with feasting and gift-giving. Candles were commonly given to signify the return of light after the solstice. At that time, Dec. 25 was associated with the winter solstice. Here lies the source of many of the traditions that are associated with Chanukah and Christmas.

Let us all celebrate this season of light, whether it be the solstice, the light that burned for eight days in the temple or the birth of Jesus. Share your holiday greetings with each other in any way you choose. It is a joyous season with our shared hopes for renewed light.