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Question: My kids (ages 5 and 8) really love Christmas trees. They know that I won’t have one in our house because we’re Jewish, but recently someone told them about a Hanukkah bush, and they’ve been asking if we can get one of those. How can I explain to them my discomfort with the tradition without seeming like a Grinch?
Answer: Oy. I try to be impartial about these things, Henry, but I’m with you when it comes to Hanukkah bushes. I just don’t like them.
First of all, you might want to get your hands on the children’s book by Susan Sussman called There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein. The situation it deals with is not precisely the same as yours, but reading the book might be a good way to start the conversation with your kids.
The concern I think most people have with Hanukkah Bushes is that they are too close for comfort to Christmas trees. There’s not much difference between the two, as far as I can tell. Slapping a Jewish star on something and then calling it a Jewish ritual item is like putting a lion mask on your dog, having him run around in your back yard, and calling it a safari.
When you’re talking with your kids about this, you can discuss how Jewish holidays aim to keep the traditions and history of the Jewish people alive. You can look at other ritual items you might have in your home–a seder plate, a siddur, a noisemaker, etc–and talk about how all of them are connected to things in Jewish history. And then talk about a Hanukkah bush, and how it really doesn’t have a Jewish history at all.
One thing that I think is helpful in this kind of situation is focusing on the ways that your kids can celebrate with others without necessarily taking on their ideology. Your kids can visit friends who have Christmas trees, and can enjoy the trees that are out in public spaces. But they should do this to be happy for others, not to take on non-Jewish rituals as their own.
The best way to combat Christmas envy is to amp up your own Hanukkah celebrations in ways that aren’t purely derivative of Christian traditions. Consider making your own window decorations, to help publicize the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles. Make Hanukkah foods from scratch (latkes and sufganiyot are Ashkenazic options, or try Sephardic/Mizrahi bimuelos and atayef), and set up a dreidel tournament. You can even have a contest in your family to see who can make the most interesting hanukkiah from things around the house. The eight nights of Hanukkah are also a great opportunity to invite friends to come celebrate with you.
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