My kids (ages five and eight) really love Christmas trees. They know that I won’t have one in our house because we’re Jewish, but recently someone told them about a Hanukka bush, and they’ve been asking if we can get one of those. How can I explain to them my discomfort with the tradition without seeming like a Grinch? — Henry, Nashville
Oy. I try to be impartial about these things, Henry, but I’m with you when it comes to Hanukka bushes. I just don’t like them.
First of all, you might try reading There’s No Such Thing as a Hanukka Bush, Sandy Goldstein by Susan Sussman to your kids to start the conversation.
The concern I think most people have with Hanukka bushes is that they are too close for comfort to Christmas trees. Slapping a Jewish star on something and calling it a Jewish ritual item is like putting a lion mask on your dog, having him run around in your backyard, and calling it a safari.
When you’re talking with your kids, 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 Kiddush cup, etc. — and talk about how they are connected to things in Jewish history. Then talk about a Hanukka bush and how it really doesn’t have a Jewish history at all.
You can also focus on the ways they can celebrate with others without necessarily taking on their ideology. Your kids can visit friends who have Christmas trees and 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 Hanukka celebrations in ways that aren’t purely derivative of Christian traditions. Consider making your own window decorations to help publicize the miracles of Hanukka — a bona fide mitzva. Make Hanukka foods (latkes and sufganiyot are Ashkenazi options, bimuelos and atayef are traditional Sephardi/Mizrahi fare), and set up a dreidel tournament. You can even have a contest in your family to see who can make the most interesting hanukkia from things around the house. The eight nights of Hanukka are also a great opportunity to invite friends to celebrate with you.
Hanukka 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 on the Jewish calendar. You can talk about the exciting and fun traditions that go with these holidays.
Now is a great time to look over family pictures from Jewish holidays in years past. Kids love looking at how much they’ve changed and grown up and enjoy reminiscing about how they celebrated — such as buying new clothes for Rosh Hashana and eating together in a sukka.
For more information about Judaism and Jewish life, visit MyJewishLearning.com.