It was not the first time that one of our children has asked this question. Nor, as evidenced by the following advice from the 1959 Guide for the Jewish Homemaker, was this the first time a Jewish child had desired to emulate her neighbors:
Jews should recognize and respect the religious quality of their friends’ and neighbors’ holidays. Although they may respond to the season’s greetings of their non-Jewish friends and associates, it is quite out of place for Jews to introduce the spirit of Christmas … into their own homes. The use of Christmas…symbols, even secularized ones like the Christmas tree or lights…are absolutely out of place in a Jewish home….Hanukkah should not be make a pale imitation of Christmas.
Clearly out of step with our modern times, the authors seem unaware of the presence of Christian family members whose traditions differ from Jewish ones. Although they make mention of the secularized trappings of Christmas, they could not have imagined, in a million years, the degree to which the second holiest day of the Christian calendar has been transformed into the commercialized celebration we now know it to be.
Let’s face it: Hanukkah, as far as the Jewish liturgical calendar is concerned, lacks the religious punch of a Yom Kippur or a Sukkot. Rabbis can insist from now until forever that Hanukkah has only one correct spelling (in Hebrew, that is), never comes early or late on the Jewish calendar (the 25th of Kislev), and that it is a minor holiday. But we know the truth: no one is spelling Hanukkah in Hebrew, the first candle in 2013 is being lit on erev Thanksgiving (can we say EARLY!), and Hanukkah (or Chanukah or Hannukah or maybe even Januka) is a big deal for those of us in the religious minority.
Returning to Lilly’s question, how does a Jewish family, however you define that, deal with holiday décor during this season?
3. Embrace the non-religious Christmas offerings. There is nothing religious about tinsel and Frosty the Snowman, Rabbi.
Wreaths have become a year-round way to decorate one’s front door. If you want to stay away from the traditional evergreen, it is simple to find one with a Jewish twist. A quick search on Etsy will yield dozens of results from a wreath adorned with blue and gold ornaments to a Star of David made of silver tinsel.
Never felt quite right wearing a Christmas-themed sweater to your company’s annual Ugly Christmas Sweater soiree? No longer a problem. Geltfiend.com has produced a line of Ugly Hanukkah Sweaters.
Wanted to get in on the seasonal fun and join Santa hat-wearing friends while out and about during the month of December but felt a little awkward? Now available is a Santa hat with blue replacing the red.
Felt as though you missed out as a kid on decorating gingerbread houses around this time of year? It turns out, as noted in a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, that this Hansel-and-Gretel-inspired tradition began in Germany in the 1800s. Just in time for Hanukkah 2012, Manischewitz has unveiled its Hanukkah House Vanilla Cookie Decorating Kit.
Thinking that it’s counterintuitive to be the only darkened house on the block during the Festival of Lights, but don’t want anything too Christmasy? Fulfill the commandment to publish the Hanukkah miracle with huge inflatable dreidels, an 8 foot menorah, or blue-and-white twinkling lights.
As my husband explained to the kids, there are many different ways to embrace Hanukkah. And it is up to each family to determine what is the right way…for them. It’s not up to their friends. Or the in-laws. Or even their rabbi.
So there will be no lights on our house. No dreidel-festooned wreath on our door. Or Hanukkah cookie house in our kitchen. Somehow those objects feel inauthentic to me. As if we are trying to emulate our Christian neighbors rather than cherish the things that reflect the traditions handed down through the generations. Instead, our home is now filled with menorahs, dreidels, banners, and lots and lots of sweet treats. Because that’s the way our one family does Hanukkah.
No matter how you choose to celebrate Hanukkah, may the warmth of the lights illuminate our lives.