We had no Christmas tree or red and green decorations in our apartment. Like most Jewish children during the 1930s and 1940s, I felt very left out during Christmas holidays. When I asked why we could not have a “Hanukkah Bush” like some Jewish families, my parents emphatically said, “No!” To them it would be denying who we really were. However, much to my mother’s chagrin, I was chosen to be a Christmas caroler in elementary school. Reluctantly, she said I could participate, but I wasn’t supposed to say the words, “Jesus Christ.” Of course, I disobeyed her, and I still love those songs.
My greatest Christmas thrill occurred when I was twelve and new neighbors invited me over to help decorate. My parents approved since it took place away from our home. I savored smelling the aroma of holiday cookies, the placing of shiny ornaments on the fragrant tree branches, and the stringing of popcorn and cranberries to adorn their tree.
When my children were growing up in the 1950s, Jewish attitudes about Christmas changed. Instead of having children envious of Christmas, many families attempted to turn Hanukkah into a comparable celebration — decorating homes in silver and blue, lighting menorahs (candelabras holding eight candles) — emphasizing that we had eight days of presents instead of just one. Parents requested that public schools give us equal time resulting in menorahs at school proudly displayed alongside Christmas tree. Civic leaders acknowledged non-Christian citizens who were also celebrating at this same time of year, so in many public places they lit giant menorahs.
Over the past several decades, especially with intermarried families with Jewish and Christian backgrounds, parents have attempted to combine the two holidays that come close to each other in time, so now we have combination names: Chrismukkah and Hanumas.
This year, Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving, a rare event. The last time it occurred was in 1861 and the next time in 2070. Consequently, this year “Thansgivvukah” entered the jargon. A creative nine-year-old, Asher Weintraub, of New York, created a “menurky” a turkey menorah where each of the eight candles fit behind a turkey feather. Asher believes that the two holidays have gratitude in common: Hanukkah because lamp oil enough for only one night lasted for eight nights, and Thanksgiving because the pilgrims were grateful for what their new land and the Wampanoag people provided.
Sometimes holiday time becomes confusing. One woman describes how her fellow employees selected a Christmas gift for their boss, wrapped it and attached a Hanukkah card.
When the boss opened his present, he enthusiastically thanked them but was puzzled. “Thank you for the Hanukkah card, but I am not Jewish.”
“But you always talk about going to Temple,” a bewildered worker complained.
“Yes,” the boss clarified, “The Mormon Temple.”
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who enjoys religious and national holidays of all kinds.