Two rolls of glittery wrapping paper poked out of my shopping bag as I approached my kids’ school bus stop. It was just a few days after Halloween, and they caught my friend’s eye. “Are those dreidels?” she asked. “Wow, you’re on top of it! I haven’t even started to think about Christmas.”
My family does not usually describe me as “on top of it” when it comes to the holiday season. Two days before Thanksgiving, the grandmas had already started begging for the kids’ Hanukkah wish lists; I didn’t even know what my children would be wearing on Turkey Day.
But, despite living in Brooklyn — in a neighborhood that has nine synagogues and three Chabad houses within two miles of my house — Hanukkah wrapping paper is like the holy grail: rare, valuable, and damn-near impossible to track down. I’ve learned the hard way that, with unwrapped gifts mailed from generous relatives around the country, early preparation (plus a little bit of hoarding) is essential.
Even though my family lives in a community with a large Jewish population, we’re still in the minority, so I’m cautious about letting our traditions get rolled over by the Christmas freight engine. I want to make sure our kids know where they come from — that preserving the heritage of our parents and grandparents means holding ourselves a little apart from the dominant culture.
And so, like many Jewish parents, I make compromises during the holiday season according to my own internal logic, which itself is guided by the traditions I remember from my childhood. Visiting the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is acceptable; singing Christmas carols in the car is fine, too, so long as they’re performed loudly and badly (and with props given to their Jewish composers). But my children will never sit in Santa’s lap, and their Hanukkah gifts will never be wrapped in reindeer wrapping paper, even if Rudolph is wearing a blue scarf.
Last year, I waited too long before starting my quest for Jewish gift wrap. It was two weeks before the first candle would be lit, and the small selections at several neighborhood stores had been overrun by more forward-thinking Jews. At one store, only a wreath decorated with blue and silver ball ornaments remained in the decimated display.
But as I stared at the depressing kiosk, I realized: I was born for this moment. Several of the great embarrassments of my childhood involved my mother asking to speak to the manager when a customer service situation went awry. A terribly mixed-up restaurant order? “I’d like to speak to the manager.” A mismarked sale item in a department store? “Is there a manager I can discuss this with?”
And then there was the time I came home in tears because my fourth-grade art teacher told the Jewish kids to “draw Hanukkah” on manila paper, while the rest of the class assembled magical Santa puppets. My mother marched straight to the principal’s office to lodge a complaint. Humiliating though it seemed when I was a kid, my mother’s willingness to demand satisfaction instilled in me the righteous indignation that I could now deploy to full effect.
So, I asked to speak to the manager. In fact, I asked to speak to the manager at three different stores, and sent exasperated emails to customer service at several national chains, asking them to consider our neighborhood’s demographics when they stocked their shelves in the future. But my kvetching to corporate did nothing to solve my problem of not having Hanukkah paper in time for the holiday. I settled on a pale blue paper with white snowflakes and another roll with navy and white polka dots. Jew-ish, but only if you squinted.
This year, lesson learned, I have been prowling drugstores and party supply shops since October, stockpiling whatever I can find. Walking through aisle after aisle of angel ornaments and stuffed Santas, I sigh at the measly endcap displays for Jews: a mix of cheap candles, a single spatula with the word “LATKE” punched out. I look curiously at a “Hanukkah Advent Calendar” — an odd piece of Jewish paraphernalia considering Advent is literally the waiting period before Jesus is born.
So far this year, I’ve been able to stash away three Hanukkah-themed rolls of wrapping paper. Maybe that’s because my complaints to various managers resulted in more merchandise, or maybe because I started shopping before we’d even taken down our Halloween decorations.
And the truth is, the gift wrap is just one piece of the puzzle: As our kitchen fills with the smells of holiday cooking, I’ll take out the silver menorah my husband and I received as a wedding gift, along with the ceramic ones personalized for each of my children. Possibly most significant of all, though, is the battery-powered one we will place in our window. Because as red-and-green lights begin to electrify our neighborhood, perhaps a fellow Jew who is also feeling overwhelmed by Christmas culture will walk down our block. I’d like for that person to see the candles from our house, and maybe a glint of glittery dreidel wrapping paper reflecting the menorah’s quietly powerful shine.