The Hanukkah Bush
What to do when your child has a case of Christmas envy
The winter holidays can be a confusing time for your kid. Some families celebrate by lighting candles and getting presents for eight days. Some families celebrate by decorating a tree inside their home and waiting for an old bearded guy to fall down the chimney. Others do a combination of both, and others still don't celebrate at all. So, what do you do if you celebrate Hanukkah in your home but your child is envious of Christmas trees? Many families accommodate by having a "Hanukkah bush," but that might leave you feeling a little sour.
You might want to get your hands on the children's book by Susan Sussman called There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein. It tells the story of young Jews and Christians who learn about other religious traditions while maintaining pride in their own.
The concern most people have with Hanukkah bushes is that they are too close for comfort to Christmas trees. There's not much difference between the two, as far as the naked eye can tell. Slapping a Jewish star on something and then calling it a Jewish ritual item is like putting a lion mask on your dog, having him run around in your back yard, and calling it a safari.
Emphasizing Each Holiday's Unique Traditions
When you're talking with your kids about this, you can discuss how Jewish holidays aim to keep the traditions and history of the Jewish people alive. You can look at other ritual items you might have in your home--a seder plate, a siddur, a noisemaker, etc--and talk about how all of them are connected to things in Jewish history. And then talk about a Hanukkah bush, and how it really doesn't have a Jewish history at all.
One thing that is helpful in this kind of situation is focusing on the ways that your kids can celebrate with others without necessarily taking on their ideology. Your kids can visit friends who have Christmas trees, and can enjoy the trees that are out in public spaces. But they should do this to be happy for others, not to take on non-Jewish rituals as their own.
The best way to combat Christmas envy is to amp up your own Hanukkah celebrations in ways that aren't purely derivative of Christian traditions. Consider making your own window decorations, to help publicize the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles. Make Hanukkah foods from scratch (latkes and sufganiyot are Ashkenazic options, or try Sephardic/Mizrahi bimuelos and atayef), and set up a dreidel tournament. You can even have a contest in your family to see who can make the most interesting menorah from things around the house. The eight nights of Hanukkah are also a great opportunity to invite friends to come celebrate with you.
Share, Don't Compare
The key to really getting your children to enjoy all of these holiday activities is to steer the conversation away from direct comparisons to Christmas. Celebrating Hanukkah shouldn't be about providing an alternative to Christmas. If you bill it that way, you'll always lose out to Santa and Christmas trees. Hanukkah is about focusing on maintaining a Jewish identity even in the face of a strong cultural current that defies that sentiment.
Another way to focus the discussion is to remind your kids about all of the holidays in the Jewish calendar. After Hanukkah we have Tu Bishvat to look forward to, and then Purim, and Passover. You can talk about the traditions that go with those holidays, and all the exciting and fun traditions that lead up to those holidays, whether it's making small gifts for friends at Purim, or searching the house for the afikomen at Passover.
If you own a children's book or game about the Jewish calendar, now is a great time to bring it out, and if you have family pictures from Jewish holidays in years past, this is a great time to look at them. Kids love looking at how much they've changed and grown up, and enjoy reminiscing about how they celebrated holidays--buying new clothes for Rosh Hashanah, eating together in a sukkah, etc. As the secular year comes to a close, you can take the time to look forward to the whole cycle of wonderful Jewish holidays that will begin again next year.
Good luck, and Happy Hanukkah!