I have always been one of those Jews who is a little curmudgeonly about Hanukkah: I don’t like the commercialization, I don’t like the association with Christmas, and when people say “Happy Holidays” to me, I have been known to occasionally respond, “My holiday season was back in the fall, but I hope you have a Merry Christmas if you celebrate it.” I have commented on the irony that so many American Jews celebrate our victory over the forces of assimilation by decorating our houses, giving gifts and eating excessively rich foods at the same time of year that our mainstream Christian hegemonic culture pushes those activities.
Ah, but parenting will shake you up and shatter your certainties.
So many American Jews celebrate our victory over the forces of assimilation by decorating our houses and giving gifts at the same time of year that our mainstream Christian hegemonic culture pushes those activities.
In the past few years, as I’ve had children of my own, my relationship to Hanukkah has evolved. I have come to value this holiday of warmth and candlelight, precisely because of all the assimilationist pressures we face at this time of year. And as an observant Jew living in a largely secular context, I have come to appreciate the attachment that even largely secular Jews still feel to this holiday.
There are very few mitzvot of Hanukkah. Though we call it “the Festival of Lights,” it is not a festival in the traditional sense. The first and last day do not have chag prohibitions. The weekday liturgy (for those in the practice of reciting it) remains the weekday liturgy, with the addition of Hallel — psalms of praise — and a special addition in the Amidah, the standing prayer. The Talmud teaches that one is forbidden to fast or eulogize on those days, as well. So Hanukkah is to be a time of extra festivity — turns out, that wasn’t imposed on us externally!
And, of course, there are the candles. One may be surprised to learn that the hanukkiyah, the eight-branched candlestick that we use on the holiday, is actually an elaboration of the basic mitzvah of Hanukkah, which is to light and display a single light in each household:
The Sages taught: The mitzva of Hanukkah is a light for a person and their household. And the mehadrin have a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin: Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights.
The phrase “mehadrin” is commonly translated as “strict” or “stringent” nowadays. But it comes from the root הדר – (h-d-r), which refers to honor and adornment. It is the same root as the phrase, hiddur mitzvah — “beautifying the mitzvah, which refers to going above and beyond the bare legal requirements of a mitzvah, out of love or a desire to make the mitzvah more joyful. Hiddur mitzvah in practice is the reason that so many of us might have, say, a special Shabbat tablecloth, or freshly cut flowers on Shabbat and holidays. One who is mehadrin is putting intention and effort into fulfilling a mitzvah. Mehadrin min hamehadrin would be one who is “honoring even beyond those who honor” the mitzvah.
The original mitzvah of Hanukkah was a single light in a window. If that were how we celebrated Hanukkah today, Jewish windows would not be distinct from the windows of many of our neighbors in this season. Of course, Jewish law and practice evolved beyond the discussions in the Talmud. Maimonides’ 12th-century law code Mishneh Torah lists the same breakdown of options for fulfilling the mitzvah as the text above (eliminating Shammai’s position because of the principle that when there is a dispute, the halacha/ruling goes according to Beit Hillel). By the 16th century, Rabbi Joseph Caro’s code Shulchan Arukh lists Beit Hillel’s mehadrin practice as the only normative practice.
It’s worth noting that what got codified into Jewish practice is not the basic practice described in the Talmud or even its embellishment (one light per family member), but the greatest, most extravagant embellishment discussed in the Talmud: increasing the light each day, with the option of each family member lighting their own hanukkiyah. This practice is unmistakably distinct from that of our non-Jewish neighbors. It demands that we assert our presence and declare ourselves, even expose ourselves as Jews.
So OK, maybe the kitschy decorations, the extravagant foods and gifts — it’s all hiddur mitzvah. On Hanukkah, surrounded by the pressures of assimilation, no matter what other mitzvot have fallen by the wayside, anyone who lights a hanukkiyah in their window and adds one flame each night is in the ranks of the mehadrin mehamehadrin.
 Shabbat 21b
 Scroll of Esther and Hanukkah 4:1
 Orach Chayim 671:2
 With thanks to my colleague, Rabbi David Basior, for pointing this out to me a few years ago.