Holiday Fusion and Confusion: How to Be a Christmas Jew, Within Reason

The warm allure of Hanukkah trumps the dazzle of Christmas in my book, but for many American Jews, the 'December dilemma' is truly a thorny one.

I’m not among the ranks of American Jews who hang baubles and candy-canes on electrified trees every Christmas. But I would be, had my parents not firmly ignored their children’s yearly demands for a “Hanukkah bush.”

Defying my father’s order that no Christmas tree would ever decorate our Jewish home, I once set out to cut one down myself in the knee-deep snows of Vermont on a family vacation.

Armed with a small kitchen knife, I approached a waist-high conifer, but could barely wrench it from the frozen earth where it stood. Not giving up, I pulled and slashed and dragged it to my room like a slain deer. Then I propped it up and strung it with colored paper garlands. I topped it with a cardboard Star of David. My Christmas envy was sufficiently appeased, and though my father gave the thing a disapproving glance, he said nothing. He must have understood it was hard for children not to be seduced by the iconography of the life-size nativity scenes, the tree worship and the obvious fabulousness of Christmas. Needless to say, no wrapped presents ever materialized under my tree.

Data from the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project show that over 30 percent of Jews in the U.S. have Christmas trees at home. Christmas and Hanukkah have never fraternized so gleefully on the shopping calendar as they have in recent years, conspiring to give Christmas Jews a month’s worth of lighting (menorahs and trees), discount buying sprees and bacchanalian eating. I’ve accepted invitations to “Christmas lunch” from other Jews and gladly humored my Spanish Jewish husband’s need for a Christmas and Three Kings’ Day meal or outing. I once even listened patiently as my Israeli father, now living in Ecuador with his second family, bemoaned the price tag of the Christmas tree that stands in his home each year.

What would that ragtag band of Maccabees, who led a bloody revolt to save the Jews from forced assimilation under Antiochus IV, think of all this happy holiday fusion? Perhaps we should imagine them browsing in an American superstore in December before we pose the question. There, and on any number of online outlets, they might join in the holiday fetishizing that has produced bagel tree ornaments, The Mensch on a Bench (a kindly old stuffed rabbi designed to compete with Elf on a Shelf), the Hanukkah Tree Topper (“The world’s first patented Menorahmen!”), a reindeer-themed menorah and other gleaming trinkets I’m not above buying.

Rabbinical tradition assigns Hanukkah a minor spot in the Jewish calendar. But generations of American Jews swept up in assimilation faced the “December dilemma.” Over two-hundred years, the story of American Jewish integration into mainstream culture with its consumer values is more nuanced than what seems to be the crass Christianization of Hanukkah, argues religious studies scholar Dianne Ashton in her book “Hanukkah in America.”

Gift-giving cult

Yiddish newspapers and synagogue pamphlets in New York, dating back to the 19th century, made it clear that the Christmas tree and the menorah were duking it out in the imaginations of Jewish children. Local rabbis exhorted parents not to let a Christmas tree into their home. But ultimately, Ashton shows, Christmas – with its luring message of fellowship – was an occasion for immigrant Jews both to absorb and resist the larger culture, and redefine their own December holiday.

The effect, Ashton says, was to reinforce American Judaism as separate and dynamic, even as Jews gladly bought into the gift-giving cult that links consumerism with fellowship. Ashton writes, “.Hanukkah had the good fortune to occur in the midst of a holiday season when American culture encourages people to celebrate something that, like Christmas, brings families together and indulges children. Hanukkah enabled Jews to accept that invitation to celebrate a sanctified family life in December. Jewish children never, it emerged, begged to be taken to church. Rather, they begged for decorated trees and Santa Claus. Jews replied with Hanukkah.”

My father had no tinselly Jewish antidote to Christmas. Instead, every year, he painstakingly wrote his transliterated version of “Ma’oz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) three times over on yellow notepad paper. My sisters and I each received a sheet with his careful penmanship. We lit the menorah and all sang cheerfully, though I had little idea then I was begging for the slaughter of barking foes. My mother’s latkes followed, and, yes, we received presents.

Mostly, I remember the intimacy of our celebration, the fire’s heat on our backs, the processional-sounding Hebrew song, and, despite my tree-pillaging incident, the sense of belonging with my father and his serious religion.

At the same time, I could praise the glory of Christ’s birth with the best of them at my school’s yearly Christmas concert, and took pride in my memorized rendition of “Adeste Fideles” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”).

I love the holidays because they’re a time when Christians and Jews alike show their “common humanity,” to use Ashton’s words. I don’t sympathize with the tedious lament that Christmas and Hanukkah are commercialized affairs. The delirium of lights and mall-hopping are a party everyone’s invited to. And I doubt many people confuse it with the meaning of Christ’s birth or Maccabean heroism.

Still, no tree has ever decorated my home, and, despite a concession or two to my Christmas-enthralled husband, I tend to check the interfaith revelry at the door.

In Spain, where I settled some years ago, there’s no general hybrid celebration for Jews. My 6-year-old son, who is growing up in a tiny Jewish minority in Madrid, has never wanted anything to do with Santa Claus or blinking firs. He attends the city’s only Jewish school. Hanukkah and other holidays are celebrated with songs, games and full pageantry. Beyond the school gates, though, he won’t see a menorah decorating any public space. In his experience, the boundaries are clear.

Like the protagonist of Susan Sussman’s children’s book, “There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush,” Sandy Goldstein, I’m always dreading the moment someone will ask my son the inevitable Christmas question. This year, it was a well-meaning hairdresser. Had he written up his list yet for Papa Noel, she wanted to know? What had he asked for? My son paused and then said, “Nothing.” She didn’t believe him and pressed on. Come on, she insisted, what had he asked for? I almost interfered, then didn’t.

“I go to a Jewish school," my son said. "Do you know what Jewish means?”

“No, tell me,” the hairdresser said.

“It means we don’t do the Christian things.”

“You’re very smart,” she answered, and moved on to soccer.