My daughter came home from school the Monday after Thanksgiving to find her classroom delightfully decorated by her teacher, whom she adores. There was a Christmas tree, garlands, stuffed santas, snowmen, and reindeer, and Christmas gel stickers adorning the windows. “What do you want for Christmas?” was the talk of the day and on our walk home, my daughter admitted she felt “uncomfortable” because no one else celebrated Chanukah. (She was the only one to raise her hand when they asked if anyone observed.)
Christmas trees, community tree lightings, Rockefeller Christmas tree, stores restaurants bedecked with evergreen needles topped with a star or else baby Jesus and trimmings grace front lawns, garlands wrap banisters, ornaments in every shape, size and color hang on railings, doorways and trees. The Christmas spirit explodes on the scene like a tidal wave and tries to rake in as much moolah as it can in its wake.
Only if you’re a Jewish kid witnessing this glitterati holiday world replete with Santa, elves, and toys galore, are you made to feel like a Christmas’ Cinderella.
Chanukah, which isn’t even a religious holiday is definitely not the Jewish Christmas it has been made to be. It is a Jewish celebration which happens to land closest to Christmas, like other pagan holidays pre-religion set around solstice time. Because the Jewish calendar fluctuates each year, as opposed to the western calendar, Chanukah is also not on a stagnant day, so while occasionally it may fall around Christmas (like this year), other years, it jumps around the month of December as Christmas’ pathetic shadow or less potent pre-show.
It has ironically never bothered me much despite the fact that my parents came to the United States so I can have the freedom to be a Jew. This life move has inadvertently created a subtle hovering pressure on me through my life. While I felt compelled to proudly declare my religion, I felt conflicted as I was raised with my father telling me he doesn’t believe in god because he believes “we are an alien experiment gone wrong” and my mother saying she doesn’t believe in God because it was “beat out of her.” My paradox went further and here are some of the reasons:
I love Christmas songs. In junior high school, I joined the chorus and for the holiday season, we learned dozens of Christmas songs (and two token Chanukah songs) and would sing them at our school assembly, at the mall, at the Pan Am building (now the MetLife building), and even once at Carnegie Hall. I love the music and the feelings (not of Jesus, specifically) which come along with it.
I love the holiday smells. The pine tree fragrance and the cinnamon mixed with nutmeg is a recipe for winter warmth and joy. The aroma is the best part to me so the idea of a fake tree is ridiculous and I wonder if a fake tree also negates some of the symbolism.
In the former Soviet Union, they put up trees for New Year’s rather than for Christmas or Chanukah. It was called a “yawlka,” and had no religious connotation. It was winter season and it was decorated. My father would describe from his childhood mandarin oranges, small candies and the garlands of chestnuts. This is the tradition with which my parents grew up and before we left the Soviet Union, there was a black and white picture with me in front of a tree every year. It had nothing to do with American Christmas or Jesus, but when we arrived here, it was considered sacrilegious for Jews to put up a Christmas tree. Over the years, this attitude has loosened and people happily put up “Chanukah bushes.” Also, Christmas has long ago gone the extreme commercialism route, over-shooting religion by miles, and it’s become a part of the American culture as much as it is part of the Christian one. Religious activists, the same people who rally over what color coffee cup Starbucks has during December, began plastering the phrase, “Jesus is the reason for the season” in case any of us jumped on the Christmas bandwagon looking for a pine tree with a present sans the church.
From the time I landed in New York City, fresh from the Soviet communist send-off, I never felt antisemitism. Thrust into a multicultural city, at the very crux of the melting pot, I happily attended a mostly immigrant school and never thought otherwise. Some kids had Christmas trees and some had menorahs and we all got presents. In fact, Jewish kids got gifts for eight nights rather than the one night of Christmas and still the red and green trumped the blue and white. It didn’t matter to my family that we were the underdog; at least we were allowed to cheer. At least in America, we were allowed to wear gold stars of Davids around our necks and light our menorahs in the windows. Who cares if we were the secondary holiday when we came from a country where it was illegal to celebrate all together? Forget happy festivities like Chanukah, in the Soviet Union, my parents weren’t allowed to get married under a chuppah, as customary for Jewish couples. None of the life cycle events could be celebrated under the banner of the Jewish religion.
My husband, on the other hand, feels directly opposite of me. He cringes at our Jewish friends who get “Chanukah bushes.” For him, it’s the equivalent of hanging a cross around their necks or on their door instead of a mezuzah. How can we as Jews be the ones to wipe away our own cultures, minimizing them, discounting them as not being as “fun” as other religions? My husband tells out kids “Chanukah was created out of trying to preserve our religious freedoms, Santa came from Coca-Cola―how can we compete?”
My husband grew up in the heartland of America: Kansas City, MO. When he first told me where he was from, my reaction was, “There are Jews in Kansas?” and he came at me like a bull telling me about the close-knit, HUGE Jewish population in Kansas City (about 20,000). He explained how he went to Hebrew school three times a week until he graduated high school, after which he spent six weeks traveling through Israel with the other kids who spent their lives up until that point, in the Hebrew ward. (Note: I never went to Hebrew school; not even a trial class.) He was even in a Jewish Boy Scout Troop that would occasionally be asked to “show their horns” while camping in rural Missouri.
When my husband was in the first grade, the same age as my daughter, he was upset because his school was dressed up for the holidays but excluded any Chanukah decorations. Typical for the rest of the country and the area schools, they decked the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. My husband was distraught and told his mother, who marched him in to talk to the principal about it. The principal shrugged and said they didn’t have any Chanukah decorations. He brushed them off suggesting they make their own Chanukah decorations and hang them around the school. Undeterred, that’s exactly what they did. They worked for a week with paint, paper and safety scissors (1977: pre-glitter and foam sticker days) to create Chanukah ornamentation to hang around the school.
Fast forward many years and now we’re raising our kids in Fort Lee, NJ, a predominantly Korean neighborhood, and my daughter attends the local public school, where she finds herself to be the only Jew in her class. On the way to school days after her teacher decorated the room in red and green, my daughter expressed concern that the topic of what people would be getting for Christmas might come up again. I suggested she talk about what she will get for Chanukah. Her face sunk and she sadly confessed she felt alienated because no one knows what Chanukah is. I sent an email to the teacher asking if my daughter can bring in her own Chanukah decorations. I told her we’d be happy to come and hang them and while I was sending the email, I had a thought. Why stop at decorations?
I suggested to the teacher that my husband and I host a Chanukah party. We’d read a Chanukah book to the kids, show them how to light a menorah, and teach them how to play dreidel. We’d eat latkes, applesauce, jelly donuts (Israeli tradition), and gold chocolate coins (gelt) and the kids can decorate their own foam sticker menorah (hail foam sticker and boxed crafts).
My daughter was ecstatic. Not so much about the party, but to be able to share the fun, joy, goodness and celebration that comes with HER holiday, the Festival of Lights. I think she wants to not only showcase it but reinforce for herself, that her religion is not secondary or inferior or less fun. The clown daddy and I will come in and show the kids that we don’t need to create a Jewish version of the Christian traditions to feel adequate or celebratory. We don’t need a Chanukah bush, blue and white candy canes, a Hanukkah Harry, or even the male or female version of the Elf on the Shelf, Mensch on the Bench or Hannah the Hannukah Hero.
We need education, love, inclusion and maybe a non-religious incantation of Kumbaya so we can all link hands, and play a secular game of Hokey Pokey and channel the Coca-Cola commercial from the 70s when all we wanted to do was “buy the world a home and furnish it with love, grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves … teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…What the world wants today is the real thing.”