12/12/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

What Does Hanukkah Mean to my Autistic Son?

"Can I get Annie for Hanukkah?" my son Mickey asks.

"You mean the musical?"

From his lack of reaction I can see he doesn't know that word. "You mean Annie who sings?"


"What does she sing?" I ask him, just to be sure I understand what he wants.

"'It's a Hard Knock Life.'"

"That's Annie, all right," I agree. "Add it to your Hanukkah list." Like his older brother Jonathan, he likes making lists. On this year's Hanukkah wish list Mickey has written: "dark green shirt, maroon shorts, Sonic the Hedgehog movies."

"Do you have a list too?" I ask Jonathan.

"Check my wish list on Amazon," he says. I do. It's extensive. Fifteen books and a seltzer maker.

"When in doubt, an Am Ex gift card is always appreciated," he adds.

I wonder if I've gone wrong. Do my kids think of Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas? We Jews frequently talk about the December Dilemma: How do we create a meaningful holiday for our kids without going completely overboard and trying to compete with Christmas? Hanukkah is only a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. A little history here: Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish Maccabees' victory in 167 B.C.E. over the Syrian-Greeks who had seized their temple and dedicated it to the worship of Zeus. When the Maccabees took back the Temple, they discovered they had only enough lamp oil to last a day; miraculously, it burned for eight. That's why we celebrate for eight days, and why we eat all that food fried in oil.

"Are my cats Jewish?" Mickey asks.

"Cats don't have a religion."

"They're Christian?"

"No, cats don't have a religion."

"My cats are Jewish," he insists.

I don't know what being Jewish means to him, let alone Hanukkah. I grew up in the parish of St. Andrew Avellino in Queens, where Catholic kids left school early Wednesday afternoons to attend catechism class. Every December I felt like an outsider when our family drove around the neighborhood at night to admire the lights. Year after year, we would marvel at a tinsel-draped tree in the large picture window of the white brick ranch house on the corner. It was glorious and greeting card perfect. It made me wistful, the same way Judy Garland's voice did when she sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I longed to live inside a cozy holiday movie like Meet Me in St. Louis or White Christmas. My friends' houses were filled with fragrant fir trees; I envied them all the sugar plums and Santa lore. I was mad for marzipan and meringue, peppermint canes and candied fruitcake. (Okay, the fruitcake not so much.) While they feasted on eggnog, sugar cookies and plum tarts, my family got to eat ... fried potatoes latkes. Sure they were good, in their oily, artery-clogging way. But the chocolate gelt in gold mesh pouches my parents handed out couldn't compete with gingerbread houses. Norman Rockwell has a lot to answer for.

I wonder if Mickey feels any Christmas envy. Or am I projecting my own ambivalence? Does he think of Hanukkah with its eight days of presents, as some kind of souped-up birthday?

This year, "eight days" has personal resonance. During the ordeal of hurricane Sandy six weeks ago, we lost power... for eight days. During those dank and dark nights, we huddled close to the hearth. It was inky black beyond the fire's protective glow. I found myself understanding, on a visceral level, why for millennia, people stared down darkness with celebrations of light. Every culture has its version: Hanukkah. Christmas. Kwanzaa. St. Lucia's Day. Diwali. Yule.

Mickey adds one more thing to his list. He asks to order a rare Jim Henson Sweetums Deluxe Action Figure. He finds it on eBay, and together we place the order. It arrives mid-week during Hanukkah; I wrap it and put it by the menorah, next to a sack of milk chocolate gelt. Mickey vibrates with excitement, barely able to contain himself through the lighting of the candles, the chanting of the blessing. "Oh boy!" he chortles, tearing into the wrapping paper. "He's here! He's here!"

I watch his elated face in the flickering candle light. Does it really matter what Hanukkah "means" to him? Can't it be enough for me, to see how happy something so simple makes him?

Because oh, it does.

And what joy, to see such joy.