Growing up I sat on Santa’s knee. Every year, my mom would take my brother and I, and then later my little brother and sister to the mall, dressed in our brown corduroys, Bauer runners, and horrible acrylic sweaters (if you don’t know what I mean, go watch That 70s Show), to sit on the old man’s lap, smile for a photo, and get our free candy cane.
When Santa would ask us what we wanted for Christmas, we’d answer, with a grin,
“Oh nothing. We’re Jewish. We just wanted the candy cane.”
We knew that Christmas wasn’t our holiday. Chanukah was. And when it rolled around, we’d gather around the menorah, sing songs, and eat latkes and sufganiyot. Sure there were gifts. Eight of them for each child. But they were trinkets, one day a game for all us kids to share, another a bag of getl (chocolate money), and always a new dreydl with which to gamble (not for profit, I assure you).
That was Chanukah–family, friends, parties, and food (really, Jews are mostly about the food).
Somehow, this holiday, this Festival of Lights of ours, that’s supposed to celebrate a miracle, just like Christmas does, has become, well… just like Christmas. Pressure to shop, piles of presents, even a desire for a Chanukah Bush decorated with silver and blue tinsel. (When I say bush, I do not mean vajazzling, by the way.)
What a sad loss of the true meaning of the holiday.
Here’s an actual conversation with a Hindu woman I worked with:
“So, what are you getting your kids for Christmas?”
“Nothing. I’m Jewish.”
“It’s mean that you won’t get your kids presents and a tree. I mean, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday or anything.”
I walked away shaking my head, sure that Christmas actually was a religious holiday. The most religious one of all. Like the Christian Yom Kippur.
Say Hello to Chrismukkah.
I’m guilty of falling into the Christmas-themed Chanukah shopping frenzy trap myself. When my kids were small, I used to buy them each eight presents (that’s 24 if you’re bad at math like me.) I’d decorate the house with blue and silver decorations (did you know they even sell strings of blue and white lights now?), and even toy with the idea of getting a little tree to doll up with tiny dreydls, menorahs, and Jewish stars.
My husband would look on me with incredulity.
“What are you doing?” He’d ask.
“I’m getting ready for Chanukah.”
“Well, it looks like Jewish Christmas to me.”
Yes it did. And, about five years ago I stopped.
My kids had become greedy, spoiled brats. They’d lost interest in lighting the menorah and in eating latkes and playing dreydl. All they wanted was their presents. They would spend all day staring at those piles of presents, begging to “open just one, a little early and why do we have to wait for after we light the candles?”
We had lost the spirit of Chanukah. I had to reclaim it. I became like Scrooge, but in a good way. I stopped buying the presents. I stopped decorating my house, save the spot of honor for the beautiful Menorah my great-grandmother brought from Poland. I reclaimed Chanukah. I de-Chrismasified it.
And no, I don’t wish that I celebrated Christmas. After all, Chanukah has eight days of partying, chocolate, fried food, and gambling. Beat that Santa.