30 November 2013

The Chanukah Bush and Other Soothing Lies

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Chanukah, being a holiday based on the Hebrew calendar, which is to some extent based on the lunar cycle, pops up on different dates by American reckoning, sometimes late enough to coincide with Christmas. The 25th of Kislev, 5774, the first day of Chanukah, coincides with Thanksgiving this year--except it doesn't really, because Jewish holidays begin at sundown on the eve of the day that secular calendars usually assign to them. So tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah, which my multicultural family celebrates by lighting four candles in the traditional menorah.

For most people, the winter holidays bring a certain nostalgia—or post-traumatic memories, depending on what kind of childhood you had. I’m lucky to have had wonderful parents, but some of their quirks and crotchets, which appeared perfectly normal to me as a kid, appear in a different light from my adult perspective.

My family was Jewish, so you might imagine we always celebrated Chanukah. Wrong. My mother later denied this, but the way I remember it (the annual event and the later explanation), my parents realized that Christmas was a lot more fun than Chanukah: stockings stuffed with presents, a glittering tree with ornaments, a pile of presents, and, of course, Santa Claus. In fact, I know I was a believer, because one of my earliest memories—at four? five? six?—is not of my father blowing the gaff, but of the moment just afterward: my mother saying, “Oh, Joe, don’t spoil her Santa Claus!” Anyway, we always had a Christmas tree, and I don’t think we started calling it a Chanukah bush until we were old enough to appreciate facetiousness.

In fact, the Chanukah bush was and probably still is a fairly common tradition among secular New York Jews with kids. Our tree was a classic 1950s tabletop aluminum tree, which we decorated with the kind of ornaments you’ll now find in flea markets and yard sales and also making a comeback as modern reproductions. The trees themselves have become collectibles, which you can find on eBay and elsewhere if you google “vintage aluminum trees.”

I believe I was eight or so when my parents decided it was important to pass on their Jewish heritage by having a menorah and lighting the Chanukah candles. The best part for kids, besides the fun of candles themselves, was the fact that it lasted eight nights, on each of which we got a present. Chanukah was a minor holiday in Judaism until the modern American frenzy of Christmas buying and decorated spurred Jewish families to turn it into something that could at least attempt to compete. We had stockings, big woolen ones otherwise used for ice skating, until I went off to college at the age of 16, as well as presents on December 25th in addition to Chanukah.

By the time I married my Irish Catholic husband, my mother was denying that any of this had ever occurred. In her conveniently faulty memory, we had always celebrated Chanukah. My husband’s position was clearly stated from the start: “I don’t care what your mother thinks—we’re having a Christmas tree.” And so we do, along with lighting the candles, eating pot roast and latkes, singing carols (music is another area in which Christmas beats Chanukah hands down), and opening the presents under the tree. And on Christmas Day, we often follow another New York secular Jewish tradition: Chinese food for Christmas.


  1. A good friend of mine, who's now a judge down in Tucson, always talked me into singing Christmas carols with him during the holidays. While I struggled to remember the words, he knew them all, even though he was Jewish. Thanks for reminding me.

    Your home sounds like a great place to spend the holidays -- right down to the Chinese food!


  2. Dix, this year we're having our pot roast on Xmas Eve, when the grandchildren are here again, because we had turkey on Chanukah. :)

    I love singing Xmas carols too. There are only about three Chanukah songs, and they aren't very good. ("I had a little dreidl/ I made it out of clay...") My best memories of caroling are from when I worked at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn and a bunch of staff would make our way through the whole hospital singing. In fact, those years are the reason I know at least some of the words to a lot of carols by heart.

  3. Liz, excellent piece. Reminds me of several of my Christian friends who are married to Jewish men. I'm glad you enjoy some of the Christmas customs because I'm addicted to certain Jewish dishes. Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas from my home to yours!

  4. We had the traditional lentil soup for Thanksgiving. Last year it was the traditional Thanksgiving pizza. One year it was... you get the drift. Traditions are what you make of them. There's lots of people who don't have traditions or got sick of them or literally are disgusted by them (holidays are NOT the "hap-happiest time of the year" for all). Mix it up! Enjoy!

  5. Thanks, Fran. :) Eve, I hear you: coming from a more functional family than those of many I've met in the past 30 years as a therapist is high on the list of things I'm thankful for at this time of year.

  6. I may have this story slightly wrong, but as I recall, the sister of a friend of mine went to a school (late fifties?) where everyone was required to bring a decoration for the school tree. Being Jewish she did not want to, but it was a rule so she brought in something decorated, in lovely script, with the following message: Joshua 10:3-5.
    Very nice and biblical, right?

    Here is the text, from the King James Version:

    3* For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4* They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

  7. I should say at our house we had sweet potato nik with our turkey dinner. Nik being a pan-sized latke, so my darling wife didn't spend the whole meal making latkes a few at a time. It was delicious.

  8. Robert, I cannot but smile at the verse that was on the decoration. But what I really want is your wife's recipe for sweet potato nik. I don't suppose she'd let you post it? Pretty please? :-)

  9. There's something appealing about traditions, as well as about breaking them occasionally. This year my wife and I are having two Thanksgiving dinners. One was on Thursday with my mother, in my childhood home seventy miles north of here, and the other will be today, with most of our kids and their spouses and children. (One of our kiddos and his family live far away--but we'll have the whole clan here for a week at Christmas.)

    I realize I'm turning this comment into a menu, but our fare today will be at least somewhat traditional: turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, broccoli, several salads and casseroles, cranberry sauce, homemade rolls, iced tea, and four pies: apple, cherry, pumpkin, and pecan. Yum.

    Best wishes to all for a Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas.

  10. We had cranberry chicken, which is boneless chicken breasts, a can of cranberry sauce, an envelope of onion soup mix, and a bottle of French dressing. Mix together & bake at 350 for an hour. It melts in your mouth. Since I found that recipe, I'll never fix turkey again.

    My sister & I both married Catholic men. It's traditional in our families to go out for a Chinese dinner on Xmas eve, then go to midnight mass. I didn't know Chinese food on Xmas was a Jewish custom!

  11. As long as everyone's chiming in, here's a hotly contested question: marshmallows on the sweet potatoes or not? We've always had them with (over my husband's vehement protests), and they were on the table this year as a last-minute substitute for sweet potato whoopie pies, which my 15-year-old cousin made but forgot to bring.

  12. Sweet potato whoopie pies! Sounded so awesome, I've already googled a recipe.

    I vote for marshmallows, 'cause my kids won't eat sweet potatoes without 'em -- because their grandmother made them that way.

  13. My wife's parents were both raised Jewish, but her mother converted to Christianity, so she and her sisters were raised in a "mixed" home. Since my wife and both of her sisters married Gentiles, not much gets said around the house unless *I* bring it up. We attend Passover every year in my in-laws' house (and not just because my mother-in-law's noodle kugel is out of this world!). It's pretty cool listening to my father-in-law read the Passover prayers in the original Hebrew.

    We hosted Thanksgiving for my in-laws (so think eight adults, three children and two toddlers) this year and the table sagged under the traditional fare served up this year. My wife and my mother-in-law are terrific cooks.

    We'll spend several days at Christmas with my family, who live a couple of hours away. It took a few years to find a system that works for all of us.

    Oh, in keeping with Chinese food metier, my wife and I had take-out on Saturday, once the taste of turkey sandwiches had definitely lost their appeal!

    Happy Happy-



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