Friday, December 30, 2016

Lighting Up the Darkness: Chanukah's Journey from Winter Dark to Hopeful Light

Imagine a world without light. In our modern setting we are surrounded by light. We flip a switch to repeat the miracle of “let there be light” — whenever and wherever we want it. We have to drive miles from our urban homes to experience the truly dark night sky.

But for most of human history people have lived in what the historian William Manchester described as “a world lit only by fire.”

For our ancestors who lived without modern electricity, the growing shortness of mid-winter days was of profound consequence. There is always the fear that maybe — just maybe — old Sol will continue to shrink into complete blackness. So it is not surprising that all cultures have midwinter festivals where light and dark figure as central symbols.

Christmas has the star of Bethlehem, Divali has its rows of lighted lamps, Kwanzaa its seven candles representing the seven principles. Northern Europeans celebrate St. Lucy’s Day on Dec. 12 with young St. Lucy Queens in candle-lit crowns.

The Chanukah Menorah certainly shares light and flame with these holidays, but Chanukah also brings a sense of movement and liberation to the mid-winter celebration that is unique.

Chanukah celebrates the victory in 176 BCE by an army of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, over the tyrannical king of the Selucid-Greek empire, Antiochus IV (also known as "Epimane" – "madman") who drove the Syrians out of Judea. 

Upon their victory, the Macabees returned to the temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it and relight the Menorah. They could find only one small flask of oil, enough to light the Menorah for just a single day.

But miraculously the oil did not run out and the lamps shone brightly for eight days. The following year, the festival of Chanukah was officially proclaimed as an eight-day celebration, some say symbolizing the victory over persecution. One candle of the Menorah is lit each night of the celebration.

And that is where Chanukah brings movement to the mid-winter. Chanukah begins in the dark with the lighting of one candle. By the eighth day, all eight candles burn in a domestic world daily growing brighter. And the larger world will soon grow brighter as we pass the longest night and day begins its journey to overtake night.

During the ancient Romans' winter solstice celebration, the Saturnalia, the freeman’s hat was worn by freemen and slaves alike. On the first day of the seven-day festival the bonds that tied the feet of Saturn’s statue were removed to symbolize the god’s liberation from his underworld domain. The New Year was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – day of the unconquerable sun.

Victories over modern oppressors begin with lighting a single candle. And that goes well beyond any single tradition or religion.

Right now the world seems darker that it has for decades. Democide – a word coined by political scientist Rudolph Rummel in the 1970s – is the best descriptive of the unspeakable catastrophe that has overtaken the Middle East. Vladimir Putin has reintroduced Pan-Slavist ideology to the world. Americans may be facing an object lesson of Plato's theory of the stages of government from oligarchy to populism to ultimate tyranny.

Yet, in our lifetime we have also seen events like the fall of Berlin Wall that tell us that no tyranny is forever. Not Vladimir Putin's. Not ISIS'. Not even one that many fear Donald Trump may bring to the U.S. on January 20. 

An old gospel hymn says, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Asking readers' pardon in advance for so freely mixing religious metaphors: As it happened more than 2,100 years ago in Jerusalem, and as the Gospel of John philosophically expressed the victory of an eternal light, "The light shines the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."

A version of this essay first appeared in the Santa Clara WEEKLY in Dec. 2004.

We all value Wikipedia as a source for background information on almost every subject. Please consider donating to the Wikipedia Foundation to keep this light shining. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Here to Oblivion: A Holiday Gift Guide

By Carolyn Schuk

It's that time of year again, when we come down to the holiday gift-giving wire empty-handed. As  a major-league waster of time on the Interent, I can help you answer that question. I've culled the twilight zone of cyber space to bring you the crème de la crème of gifts that will make you unforgettable – and possibly an anathema – to the recipients. 

Although many Millennials eschew wristwatches for smartphones, the right wristwatch can be a useful social asset.

Think Geek's ( Back to the Future Flux Capacitor Wristwatch tells you the time, sort of. But the real plus of this timepiece is its time travel feature and the LCD that tells you what year you've landed in. Write from the future when you find work.

Big Bang Theory fans on your list will thrill to Uncommon Good's ( equation watch. When the conversation wilts, just tell folks what time it is, and find out how many people in your intimate circle remember what the absolute value of i is. 

The gal in your life will thank you for this handy-dandy swiss-army-knife of a barrette, also sold by Think Geek. It's a wrench! It's a bottle opener! It's a screwdriver! It's a nail file! And the best part is that you don't need a pocket to keep it in. When it's not in use, just use it instead of that bobby pin to keep your hair out of your eyes. 

Novelty holiday wearables is a gift category that never fails to yield a rich crop of new offerings annually. The Oriental Trading Company ( is one of our favorite places for unique holiday items and, once again, delivers the goods.

Nothing says "Don we now our gay apparel" like OTC's Christmas tree hat, which comes complete with ornaments, tinsel and a tree – head? – top star. Plus, cover with black felt, add some green face paint, and you're all set to masquerade as the Wicked Witch of the West next Halloween.

The holidays wouldn't be complete without that adventure in ornamental excess, the holiday sweater. OTC's Chanukah sweater, shown with the ever-popular necktie t-shirt, will light up eight nights all by itself.

Honorable mention in the holiday sweater department goes to our friends at  Think Geek, whose holiday sweater suit was a hit with us last year.  This year's featured sweater looks like the kind of cozy snowflake design your granny would knit for you. But look closely. Those snowflakes are actually spiders. Knitters, make your own with's spider-cable sweater pattern.

Holiday sweaters aren't just for wearing. Bring that over-the-top meme to your holiday décor with OTC's holiday sweater ornaments. In four different eye-crossing red and green patterns, these ornaments give the extra gift of making guests think they've already had too much to drink, encouraging them to stop drinking your 12 year-old scotch and go home early.

Outdoor décor is another holiday favorite. This year let Santa know exactly where to land with this lit-up TARDIS lawn ornament from Think Geek. (That's "Time And Relative Dimension In Space" machine for those of you not versed in Dr. Who lore). With its special invisibility feature, perhaps it can effect your escape from this year's dreaded holiday conversational gambit, "Boy, this election was really something!"

And speaking of the election, one thing we all now share is a feeling that civilization as we know it is doomed. Trump voters felt like that before the election, while Clinton voters found themselves infected in the early hours of Nov. 9. Here are some gift ideas for the onset of Armageddon.

Nothing says, "I care about you" like the gift of NukePill's ( Radiacwash Family Radiation Decontamination Kit. With everything you need to decontaminate a family of four, the kit is packaged in a patented Indestructo box, designed to survive the blast.

Urban Survival's playing cards offer 52 tips on surviving the collapse of civilization These strictures offer clues to the worldview of the apocalyptically-inclined. "Keep quiet about your level of preparedness," and "Light, sound and smell can attract desperate neighbors," "Monitor/join [groups] as they're being formed to avoid being a target." "Pull this deck of cards out at your next poker night and see where the conversation goes!" says the manufacturer, which is also an NRA business partner.

There's no better way to wrap a cornucopia of apocalypse than Just Camo's ( camouflage gift wrap, which comes in four seasonal patterns as well as white (for artic maneuvers). Matching ribbon and bows available.

So don't let the radioactive rain dampen your holidays. As songster Weird Al Yankovic wrote in his cold war-era holiday satire, "I'm gonna duck and cover/ with my Yuletide lover/underneath the mistletoe."