“WHAT DO YOU mean there’s no Santa?” I was nine and filled with outrage.
I had heard rumblings of this insanity, but didn’t believe it. Yet now here was my older sister deciding it was time for me to accept the harsh reality.
“Does that mean there’s no Christmas?”
“We’re Jewish,” she reminded me. As if this had anything to do with the pleasure of Santa bringing me presents.
My sister and I were not just the only Jews in the neighborhood, we were the only Jews in the entire school of our suburban Connecticut town. All my friends celebrated Christmas and believed in the mysterious gift-giving man in red. Naturally, I followed their lead and got swept up in the secular celebration of the holiday. I was also aware that I was different, and was reminded of that fact every day at school. I was a slice of challah amidst a sea of Wonder Bread. I desperately wanted to fit in. I even played the angel Gabriel in the fourth grade Christmas pageant, and won an award for it. I was the best messenger of God that school had ever seen.
For me, everything about Christmas was perfect. As far as I was concerned Alvin and the Chipmunks had the quintessential holiday album. I couldn’t get enough of it. I went around the house incessantly singing, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” I was mesmerized by the joyful glimmering trees alive with colored lights. I pined for a pine of my own. Even a fir or spruce would do. I was completely sold on the glitter and pageantry of the Yuletide season — not the story of Jesus mind you, but the North Pole, Santa, flying reindeer, carols, lavish productions, frosted cookies, and ornately wrapped presents with bows under beautifully decorated trees. I loved the theatricality and frenzy of it. It was exciting.
My parents had no intention of killing off my belief in the magical man of the North Pole. So to keep the charade going, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas — main presents for the former, stocking stuffers for the latter. When I inquired about the allocation—since all my friends awoke to big, flashy boxes—I was told Santa only filled the stockings and brought small presents for the Jewish families.
Even though we were essentially twice-a-year Jews—Passover and Hanukkah, with the occasional Rosh Hashanah—my father refused to allow an actual tree in the house. However, we did have a large wall sconce that hung over the fireplace which wasn’t doing anything, so we decorated it with tinsel, lights and an array of ornaments; everything you’d put on a tree. We also hung our stockings from it, which my mother had emblazoned in glitter with our names.
But now that I would no longer be expecting the jolly fat man to bring the latest toy I saw on television, my father decided there was no reason to continue and nixed Christmas all together. We went to being a mono-holiday family. I was very sad that Santa Claus was no longer comin’ to town. After just one subdued, garland-free season of organized gifts, I grabbed my sister and went to my father, and I staged a mini coup.
“Hanukkah is no fun. We want Christmas back,” I demanded.
I tapped my sister on the back. “Yeah!” she agreed.
The one-gift-a-night holiday is apparently for kids with patience who understand the concept of delayed gratification. I wanted it all now. I wanted the frenzy. Throw it at me all at once. Hanukkah was too low-key for me. There was no Charlie Brown Hanukkah Special. No Hanukkah Harry claymation story with the abominable snowman befriending a runway boy who was forced into the family schmata business when what he really wanted was to be a dentist.
My father remained adamant about no Christmas. That is, until my mother, the queen of kitsch, stepped in and fought alongside us. She lived for over-the-top glitzy holiday decorations, which didn’t really come in the Hanukkah variety. After promising my father it wouldn’t get out of control, the shimmer and glitter of the tinsel finally won out.
My father was still insistent: no tree.
“We need something to put the presents under,” my mother said, quite logically. “How about some of those white branches?”
“Fine,” my father acquiesced. “But nothing taller than three feet. Keep it simple and subdued.”
My mother was thrilled. She took the poinsettia and ran with it. It quickly looked like a Christmas shop had exploded in our home. She went out and got a bunch of those white spray-painted twigs, and we hung miniature white lights and ornaments off of it and christened it a Hanukkah bush.
The roles were now reversed and Christmas became our main celebration. We continued to light the candles for all eight nights of Hanukkah, but we chose just one present from beneath the tree for the first night. The rest were reserved for Christmas morning.
Every year the twigs got bigger and bigger as my mother kept buying new trimmings and we started a tradition of exchanging non-traditional ornaments: Santa riding a Venetian gondola, a dancing frog, 20’s flappers and fan dancers, zaftig mermaids. Eventually, the branches were 10 feet tall. I loved it. It had whimsy. Our holiday decorations went up soon after Thanksgiving and—because my mother couldn’t get enough of them—didn’t come down until April, just before Easter…I mean, Passover.
On Christmas morning, we’d wake up, have bagels and lox, and then take turns opening our presents. All surrounded by my mother’s ever-growing collection of Santa figures and ornamental Christmas trees, which had taken over the dining room and kitchen tables, as well as lined the fireplace, television, and certain areas of the floor. Eventually, we had too many ornaments for just one tree and opened an annex in the family room for a smaller tree specifically dedicated to my mother’s substantial accumulation of Santa ornaments. My father had no choice but to put up the white flag and surrender to the Santa.
Today, thanks to my non-Jewish partner Tony, I still celebrate both holidays. I just didn’t expect him to take to Hanukkah as much as he has. He insisted that we buy a menorah and every year looks forward to lighting the candles. He’s the one who reminds me of the first night and becomes an impatient child, begging me, “Can I open a Hanukkah present, can I open a Hanukkah present?”
Like my mother, he loves to decorate for the season, so for four weeks every year our apartment is taken over by a Santaland Christmas Village— just about every surface is covered with a section of town, which he’s organized into commercial, residential, social, and toy-making quadrants. And in the center of the town square (next the illuminated tree and elf ice skating rink) is a menorah. Like us, his residents of the North Pole also celebrate both.
Our 6-foot tree is covered with whimsical ornaments as well as a set of Hanukkah lights with little glowing menorahs, dreidels and Stars of David. A second strand of these lights borders our living room window. We place our presents around the tree and pick one to open for Hanukkah. The rest stay put until the morning of December 25th. Except for the year that Tony became so impatient that he opened three of his presents for Hanukkah.
I taught Tony the prayer for lighting the candles, which he happily recites. However, his version is a bit unusual. Instead of starting the prayer with the Hebrew, “Barukh atah Adonai” he says “Baryshnikov adenoid,” and “L’hadlik neir” becomes “The hot eclair.” Initially it was because he had difficulty pronouncing it, but it quickly became a tradition. Okay, so it’s an irreverent Hanukkah, but we laugh and have fun, we’re doing it together. After all, isn’t that what these holidays are about anyway? We’re keeping the Jewish tradition alive in our home, albeit a somewhat warped version of it. I’ve also learned to make a pretty good potato latke, which we eat awash in the glow of our Hanukkah candles and the colored lights of our Christmas tree.
A Two-Holiday Jew Tries To Convince Himself Why Hanukkah Is Better
I sometimes feel bad for Hanukkah, which I’m sure gets a bit of an inferiority complex alongside its flashier cousin. There’s no 80-foot menorah in Rockefeller Center with televised lighting ceremony and Mariah Carey singing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah”. There are no crowds lining up to see the holiday windows at Katz’s Deli. No one in a tutu is dancing The Festival of Lights Suite over at Lincoln Center. The Rockettes don’t do a kick line atop a giant dreidel. Folks exchange gifts with co-workers through a Secret Santa, never a Secret Moishe.
It’s hard to compete with the allure of a robust stranger in a fur-lined leisure suit who flies around the world and hands out toys once a year. How do you choose between the flash of brightly colored trimmings and twinkling lights, and the quiet glow of the Hanukkah candle? All the holiday really needs is just a good PR person. For anyone straddling the dual-holiday fence (like me), here are some points to consider.
|Sure, there may be ten presents under the tree, but only three are for you.||You already know exactly what you’re getting: eight gifts. No more, no less. It’s a very egalitarian holiday when it comes to gift giving.|
|Pressure!||There’s no pressure to keep up with the Moskowitzes by buying this year’s must-have item, the Laser Menorah 2800.|
|Electrical costs skyrocket as you deck out your home in blinking lights and animatronic Santas.||All you have to worry about is a box of candles and a book of matches. You’re also set if the power goes out.|
|You have to be on your best behavior to get gifts, or you’ll get a stocking full of coal instead.||Gifts are not contingent on how naughty or nice you’ve been. There’s no incentive or punitive system in place.|
|There’s only one way to spell Christmas. Where’s the creativity in that?||The Festival of Lights is so special there are a several spelling choices—some of them involving double consonants and the mysterious letter H.|
|Christmas never varies, it’s extremely predictable: December 25, every…single…year.||Beginning mid-November Jews everywhere start asking each other, “When is it this year?” Keeps you on your toes. It becomes somewhat of a game show — For a piece of Hanukkah Gelt and a prize package worth 8 nights of gifts, when is the first night of Hanukkah?|
|Preparing a yuletide dinner can be Herculean task: ham, turkey, ziti, fish, and a hundred side dishes. It’s exhausting.|
Potato latkes: potatoes, onions, eggs, flour, oil, sour cream, and applesauce. Ess gezunt!
|You’ll be sweeping up stray pine needles for months to come.||With a menorah, all you need to worry about is scraping some melted wax off your table. Apply ice and life.|
|One full-throttle day and it’s over. Think of the letdown.||Eight full nights of family, friends, and presents—and an important lesson on delayed gratification.|