You would scream too, wouldn’t you, if you were dropped in sizzling oil to be fried? If everywhere you went others refused to understand you? If you felt as if you didn’t have a proper home? If someone was prepared to eat you?
I adored this Hanukkah story. Don’t be fooled by Lemony Snicket’s subtitle A Christmas Story, this one is not really about Christmas. As the latke runs screaming from the pan, he runs into various Christmas symbols and is misunderstood by each. Each time, he further explains the reasons for various Hanukkah traditions and the origin of the holiday itself and each time the Christmas symbols try to make sense of what he’s saying within their own framework for understanding (which for most is a Christian framework, although the Christmas tree does allude to his pagan roots). The result is a book where you can see an array of Christian responses to this Judiasm, although I have to say that all fall short of understanding.
At the beginning, Snicket notes that the cottage which is not decorated for Christmas is viewed with suspicion. The Christmas lights dismiss the latke as nothing but hash browns. The candy cane although he begins more rudely than the other Christmas items, it finishes its interaction with the latke by trying to make a connection between the Jews who hid their religion in 175 BC and Joseph and Mary being excluded and hiding in the stable. The Christmas tree tries to reach out by pointing out that many holiday traditions have commonalities, but the latke has reached his frustration point and does not want to start a discussion (although for those interested, that would be a great discussion). Finally the latke is found by his own people, and even though it results in his demise (latkes are meant for eating after all), he does get to feel a sense of belonging.
There’s no question that this is written from a Jewish perspective, and that there are some Christians who will read offense into this book. But there are those who refuse to understand what it is to be a minority (whether it be due to religion, race or sexual orientation) and there are those who try to understand albeit clumsily. Snicket’s latke is really looking for two things, a sense of belonging, and for others to listen and acknowledge his otherness, his own separate identity.
In allowing himself the freedom to animate a latke, Snicket claims that this is a Christmas story where things can happen that would never happen in real life. This could be read several ways. I think it’s pretty clear that Snicket is not taking aim at Christianity itself, but more likely at Christmas tradtions and folklore which openly employ magic (Santa, elves, flying reindeer, animated snowmen). How you take this is up to you. If you like, you can take it as condemnation of Christmas mythology, or you can take it as an acknowledgment that Christmas is a time of magic.
This is not a book to use if you want a book that covers both Christmas and Hanukkah traditions, unless you’re dealing with older children (maybe teens or tweens) and want to incorporate literary analysis and religious discussion. If you want a book about the two holidays and friendship between Jews and Christians, please just get The Trees of the Dancing Goats.
The vocabulary is quite difficult and there is much subtlety in Snicket’s message which will be lost on littler children. But the smaller ones might enjoy it just for the screaming bits. Tougher words include “arrondissement” which Snicket defines as “a place where something is being born” but which usually is a French designation for an administrative division – similar to a district in US terms. Also: suspicion, ruckus, Antiochus (pronounced An-tie-uh-cuss) for those of us lacking in biblical or historical background, rededicate, unabated, commemorate.
Necessary words pertaining to Hanukkah:
latke pronounced lot’-kuh – a potato pancake
dreidel pronounced dray’-dull – for more info see here.
menorah pronounced muh-nor’-ah – most people use this term to refer to the holder of the 9 candles lit to celebrate Hanukkah, but a more thorough explanation is here. Technically a menorah is any candelabra/candle holder whereas one used specifically for Hanukkah would be a hanukkiyah.
hanukkiyah pronounced hahn-new-kee-uh – a Hanukkah menorah.
Maccabees pronounced mack’-uh-bees – the Jewish rebel army that was victorious against the Syrians.
Torah – pronounced Tore’-uh – Jewish scripture, for a more detailed explanation see here.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – We are informed that latkes are not conceived and born the same way that we are conceived and born. You best believe I talked super quickly whilst reading that aloud to my class.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – The latke is put into very hot oil. The latke is eaten.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None.
Frightening or Intense Things – None.