30 November 2013
The Chanukah Bush and Other Soothing Lies
by Elizabeth Zelvin
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.
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.
Posted by Elizabeth Zelvin at 00:01