Love and families the meaning of the holidays

December is a wonderful, slightly crazy month. Two words — “holiday season” — explain both the wonder and the craziness.

Right around now, I picture you safe and warm in your homes, hopefully surrounded by people you love. I picture beautiful Christmas trees decked out with ornaments and wonderful trimmings.

I can’t think of a lovelier image.

I hope there is laughter, joy and gratitude in abundance on your Christmas morning.

In Jewish households like ours, families already have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights — a reminder of glorious freedom…and hope.

This year, it came much earlier than Christmas, although in other years, when the Jewish calendar reads differently, the two holidays are almost simultaneous.

As the holiday approached, if I listened hard, I could still hear the sizzle of golden oil frying up batches of potato “latkes” in my mother’s kitchen. Those latkes were the delicious, crispy pancakes that are the culinary symbol of this holiday.

It seems particularly fitting that these meaningful holidays come in the same month. So many of our other months this year — especially recent ones — have been scarred with bitterness on the world stage.

When I hear the name “Paris,” or “San Bernardino,” I get a churning that was never there before. Another life-changer for humankind.

But for these December holidays, we can try to blot out all that briefly and wrap ourselves in warm bathrobes, good food, good company — and pleasure.

Holidays are always pauses on the relentless time-line that keeps us all marching too fast and too far. I know life wasn’t nearly as frenzied “way back when.” But I suspect that every generation says that, and means it.

I also know that we desperately need special days like these to regroup, to reflect on what really matters, and to see the faces we don’t see nearly often enough.

I try not to imagine those who are alone for these December holidays, too sick or old or isolated to be part of a family portrait. They are out there in sobering numbers. There are too many who spend these holidays in loneliness or grinding poverty. And we shouldn’t forget them — especially not given the true meaning of Christmas and Hanukkah.

In households where someone dear is gone, there will be that terrible ache that doesn’t go away. No matter how many Hanukkahs I celebrate in the embrace of a growing family, I still miss my parents.

If only my father, who left us so many Hanukkahs ago, could see Danny, the little fireplug of a boy whose dimples remind me of his great-grandpa’s.

This year, as every other, the absence of my mother will be all the more keenly felt — she died on the first night of Hanukkah nine years ago, and still we lit the first candle because it felt right and important. Even as our tears fell, that first candle glowed.

In your house, you probably have traditions that may not make perfect sense any more, but still remain firmly in place because traditions give us a touchstone to what was.

My friend Joan, who now celebrates Christmas in the Poconos where she and her husband have retired to a sprawling country house, will surely drag out the Christmas stockings that she made out of red felt and lettered with each child’s name in sparkly little stars so long ago.

Her four children, all grown now, are scattered to the winds. Two won’t even be spending the holiday with Joan because it’s the in-law’s turn this year. But Joan will have those stockings hanging because she knows that they define Christmas for her in a way that will never change, no matter how much everything else has.

Our pal Jack will insist that his grandchildren arrive at dawn, and open their gifts together, creating a crazy jumble of paper, ribbon and shrieks. Everybody else was willing to relinquish that tradition and sleep in. But not Jack.

I understand perfectly.

That’s because every year I drag out the Hanukkah menorah — candle-holder — that our middle daughter Amy created out of clay with her stubby little fingers. No kindergartener was ever prouder of a crooked, ungainly artifact.

I’ve carried that menorah with us to three homes, packing it as carefully as if it were a priceless treasure plucked from an archaeological dig. To me, it is.

Yes, holidays are absolutely personal, quirky, emotional and laced with the nectar of the past.

And isn’t that precisely what makes them wonderful? ••