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Presence, not Presents

12/03/2019 06:19:16 PM


‘Tis the season for holiday decorating and the retail frenzy that accompanies it. This year, it seems like stores are displaying more and more Chanukah items than ever before nestled amidst the ubiquitous red and green. From ritual items like menorahs and candles to festive dinnerware and spinning dreidel tops, Target, TJ Maxx, Bed Bath and Beyond, and your neighborhood drugstores have all of your holiday needs covered. And that’s not even counting the plethora of online merchandise. Several supermarkets have also offered a robust Chanukah selection although many of them include every single type of food stereotypically defined as “Jewish” – including Passover matzah!

One of the more prominent items being sold are Chanukah ornaments – namely, sparkly dreidels, and Jewish stars adorned with a ribbon on top, meant to be hung for all to see. The abundance of these trinkets and their overt connection to that other December holiday is a sore spot for many Jews. 

My first reaction to seeing Chanukah ornaments in stores was not one of dismay. Perhaps naively, I did not even immediately correlate them with Christmas trees. I imagined hanging them from a doorknob or light fixture. In fact, I have a beaded star of David ornament dangling from the bulletin board in my office year-round. My grandmother purchased it from the holiday bazaar at her retirement home. At the time, she was simply excited that Chanukah was being recognized at the sale. She knew that I had no intention of ever putting it on a tree but had a feeling that I would find some use for it in my life as a Jewish professional. And so I did.

Looking beyond the tinsel and ornaments, I found myself particularly drawn to the variety and creativity of the other Chanukah items I saw on sale this year. My favorite by far was the adorable octopus menorah wrapping paper I found at Target. Get it? An octopus has eight legs just like a menorah. Its head even serves to mimic the extra helper candle, called the shammash. Why hadn’t anyone made this brilliantly obvious connection before?

Some of the products even seemed to have bonafide educational value. Target is also selling a decorative sign that defines “Hanukkah Terms & Traditions.” The sign explains the significance of ubiquitous Chanukah symbols like the menorah, dreidel, and latkes. I can imagine such a sign adorning the home of an interfaith family raising children who are learning about both Chanukah and Christmas traditions. We’ve hung the sign near the entrance of my synagogue so that we can educate those who enter our doors about the symbols they might be seeing during this time of year. I love that this particular decoration is both festive and functional.

The one minor issue with the sign is the fact that it defines “Gift” by alluding to the fact that “One gift is given on each night of Hanukkah.” Those who bemoan the Jewish adoption of Christmas traditions like ornaments are forgetting that one of the most popular Chanukah customs – the giving and receiving of gifts  -- is a modern invention modeled after the commercialization of Christmas and, in particular, Christmas presents.  

From a religious standpoint, Chanukah is a relatively insignificant holiday on the Jewish calendar. It is not even mentioned in the Torah, since the events surrounding its observance occurred long after the Torah was redacted. The Talmud, a lengthy compendium which explains many of our Jewish laws and customs, devotes a mere three lines to the historical events surrounding Chanukah and only three pages to Chanukah observance – namely, the lighting of the menorah. Gift giving isn’t even mentioned! For comparison’s sake, there are entire volumes devoted to Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. 

Unfortunately, neither Rosh Hashanah nor Sukkot is positioned opposite the grandiose American cultural spectacle that is Christmas. Ironically, Sukkot provides Jews with a construction and lighting challenge that has the potential to rival even the grandest Christmas displays. Sukkot provides us with ample opportunities for creative decorations and – dare I say it – even an appropriate place to display star-of-David ornaments and tinsel.

However, most American Jews are far more likely to decorate for Chanukah than they are to build a sukkah. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – at least they are doing something to acknowledge and celebrate their Jewish heritage. That’s definitely better than nothing. The key is to do so while remembering that Chanukah is a time to celebrate Jewish resilience as opposed to assimilation. At its very core, Chanukah is about the survival of Jewish peoplehood. It is not simply a convenient excuse for Jews to have something to celebrate while the rest of the world partakes in Christmas festivities. 

In many ways, Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas has allowed us to raise our small but mighty Jewish voice as a religious minority – quite successfully, I might add. The amount of real estate given to Chanukah merchandise in stores has increased significantly over the past decade. This is a huge win. It’s time to work towards making those same strides during the rest of the year. Instead of critiquing the fact that many of the Chanukah items for sale have roots in Christmas traditions or that supermarkets are including matzah in their Chanukah displays, we must find ways to proudly display our Jewish pride beyond the winter holiday season. There are opportunities to do this year-round. Build a sukkah in the fall. Wear a costume on Purim in the spring. Have a BBQ for Lag B’omer in the summer. In order to educate and enlighten our friends, families, and retailers about the richness of our traditions, we need to fully embrace and understand them for ourselves. 

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782