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Hanukkah is NOT the “Jewish Christmas”
The most-anticipated time of the year is approaching so quickly, we can hardly keep up with grabbing the gifts we want to give from the eagerness of shops to be rid of them!
Just kidding, of course. I’ve long given up the idea that I can convince my Christian friends that Hanukkah is NOT “the Jewish Christmas,” that it’s just acquired that name because it arrives so close to the REAL Christmas every year. And also, because in some well-meaning but always in-vain attempts to give their children at least as many gifts as their non-Jewish friends might find under the Christmas tree, many Jews have succumbed to a new “tradition”: at least one gift every night for all the eight nights of this very old holiday.
My childhood memories are quite clear: Grandma arriving early on the first evening with a coin purse full of pennies, counting out for each of us 44 of them, representing and equaling the number of candles used during all our celebratory eight nights of lighting the Menorah, the eight-branched candelabra symbolizing the holiday. But I have another memory that stands for all my later futile attempts to convince my non-Jewish friends that no religious relationship at all exists between these two festive occurrences.
Where’s the Tree?
So here’s my memory…when I first came to Dallas, back in 1980, it was November – almost Hanukkah time – so one of the first things I unpacked was my collection of Menorahs. I had quite a few of them because menorahs evolved in the many years since Grandma and her pennies. They went from the undistinguished tin candle holder, used my most families then, into objects of art – well worth collecting for creativity and beauty as well as utility.
To meet my neighbors, I joined a bridge club made up of neighborhood women of all religions and none. As the holidays approached, the group cycled through several weeks of gift exchanges – in which I of course took part, but I did not wrap my gifts in the distinctive Christmas paper chosen by most of the others. The first present distributed to everyone was a cookbook compiled by one of the player’s Junior League in her home town in Louisiana. This woman was one who commented often on the beauty of the Christmas trees as the group rotated from one home to another. As I was absent on the Junior League lady’s giving day, one afternoon a few weeks later she came to my house with a cookbook for me. I invited her in, and of course she looked around. Everywhere! And then she asked, in a very puzzled tone, “Where’s your tree?” I tried a short explanation, which didn’t help much, so I invited her into my kitchen for coffee while I gave her more information.
The house I lived in at that time in had a long counter dividing the cooking and eating area, and on that counter I lined up all my menorahs: a tall one in traditional blue, another a replica of the one that symbolizes Israel; others that sat flat on the surface, including an old tin one among all the fancies I amassed over the years; even a couple of miniatures that could accommodate birthday candles for children to admire and maybe light on their own as they grew old enough. And, of course, a large electric one, poised in a nearby window that faced the street. She was obviously clueless, so over coffee I told her the historic story of the holiday, along with a mini-lesson on Judaism and how Hanukkah “just happened” to occur at the same time as Christmas but was not a part of it. She shook her head as if she understood, and thanked me rather profusely for this bit of “education.”
Why I no longer explain Hanukkah
I was pleased with my teaching prowess, but for only a very brief time. As we walked to my front door, she took a look back at the empty space in my living room that she expected to be filled with something tall and green. And then, as I opened the door for her, she looked at me and said: “You really AREN’T going to have a Christmas tree, are you?”
Ever since, I’ve avoided giving Hanukkah “lessons” unless my Christian friends actually ask for them! Instead, I just wish everyone a Very Happy ??? – whichever I know is the most appropriate greeting for whomever I have the pleasure of greeting at this joyous, festive, holiday time of year! Now, all my menorahs except the one I actually light live in a repository of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society, where they come out as needed for annual displays!