Over the weekend, I braved the chaos of the mall so I could get WonderWife™ her Hanukkah gift. Looking for a card, I went to the aisle in Target to find only about an eighth of their holiday card section devoted to Hanukkah. The card choices at Target are limited on a good day, and most of the Hanukkah cards had already been picked through, so I went to Hallmark. But it wasn’t much better there either. Although the Hanukkah section was more than twice the size of Target’s, half of those racks were for Bar and Bat Mitzvah cards. The choices were pretty limited for the Hanukkah cards they did have. I couldn’t even find one from a child to a parent. I picked out a fairly generic Hanukkah card and as I moved through the store towards the register, I took in all of the red and green, the mistletoe, all of the Santas, reindeer and candy canes that filled the store and I suddenly felt left out.
The divide between Hanukkah and Christmas wasn’t apparent to me as a kid. I grew up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood, and I can only recall one close friend who celebrated Christmas. Each morning after Hanukkah, my friends and I would talk at school about what we got the night before and what we thought we were going to get that night. Christmas decorations still dominated the landscape, but I never felt excluded. Christmas was something that some people celebrated, but my world consisted of Hanukkah. And it was exciting.
This year, I am struggling with being Jewish around the holidays for the first time in my life. That trip to the mall has triggered feelings in me that I wasn’t aware even existed. I think that it’s largely due to the fact that at 2 years old, the Bean is becoming more conscious of the world around him. As the houses in our neighborhood have begun to put up Christmas lights, the Bean has taken notice and become fascinated. “It’s bee-yoo-ti-ful,” he says standing in awe of the blinking colors. And WW™ and I are encouraging this excitement by driving him to other houses to see more displays. We’re even planning on braving the traffic and taking him to see the light display at Griffith Park. I spent the morning singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to him and last night we Tivo’d “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Yet, it’s been harder to tell him about Hanukkah. We have some Hanukkah books and the dreidel song, but nothing as visceral or as pervasive as the Christmas stuff.
For the Bean right now, Christmas is all about shiny things—the lights and the colors and a few songs. But I know that next year, there will be questions. Questions like, why don’t we have a tree or why can’t we put up lights on our house? How do you tell a kid that putting up lights on our house isn’t what we do because we celebrate a different holiday than most everyone else? How does a story about oil lasting for 8 nights compete with a supernatural guy in a red suit coming down a chimney to leave presents?
The real problem with being Jewish around this time is the lack of symbols to celebrate. Yes, most malls have a menorah among the Christmas displays. But let’s be honest, their simple menorahs are too easy to ignore next to the ornate Christmas tree. It’s difficult to instill a sense of pride and excitement about our holiday when compared to Christmas, it seems so drab. NPR reporter Amy Klein recently said this about being Jewish around Christmas, “Okay, so it's not really the shopping that bothers me, but the sensation that there's a giant party to which everyone but me is invited.” This is pretty much how I’ve been feeling this year. I’m jealous at my friend, who is spending his first Christmas with a house, gets to put lights up in the trees in his yard. I long for a ritual akin to trimming a Christmas tree. But for the sake of my son, I need to deal with these feelings invisibly. I’ve told the Bean that celebrating Hanukkah is special and not everyone gets to do it. Only time will tell if this message penetrates.
Since my family is new, we need to figure out our own ways to celebrate and our own traditions to uphold. I want nothing more than for the Bean to rush into school the day after Hanukkah and tell his friends about what he got, even if his friends all celebrate Christmas. I want him to be proud of his heritage and I want him to be as excited about the holidays as I was growing up.
So to everyone lighting candles tonight, I wish you a very happy Hanukkah.