When I was in kindergarten, I believed in Santa Claus. Although I knew I was Jewish, to me, he was not different from other childhood legendary figures like the Tooth Fairy or the ghosts and witches of Halloween and I believed in them. So, I hung up a stocking on our fireplace just in case, he came sliding down our chimney. In the morning I found an apple and a piece of candy in my stocking because my mother didn’t want me to be totally disappointed, but of course I was. That’s when I stopped believing in Santa Claus— but not Christmas. I thought Christmas was for everybody. Despite my parents’ promotion of Hanukkah and my attendance at a Jewish Sunday School, I was seduced by Christmas.
Growing up in the fifties, Hanukkah was not a holiday that received any attention outside of the Jewish community. The whole country focused exclusively on Christmas and my public school was no exception. As soon as Thanksgiving ended, Christmas preparations began. Every class got busy making red and green paper chains to deck the halls. The best school artists painted the windows with pictures of Santa, wreaths, reindeer, Christmas trees, and every other commercial symbol of the holiday. Although these windows did not depict religious subjects, the effect from afar was that of stained glass windows in a church. There was a large Christmas tree in the main hallway with fake presents underneath it. The week before Christmas, the school choir went from room to room, stopping in the doorways, and singing Christmas carols. Learning was suspended for the duration. Jews comprised about ten percent of my school population, but we were invisible. We were all swept along in the tidal wave of Christmas flooding our school. No one mentioned Hanukkah.
The highly anticipated culminating event at school just before Christmas break was the annual Christmas show. Each class had a part to play. Some classes were elves, some were reindeer, or wooden soldiers, or sugar plum fairies, etc. Class by class we appeared on the stage singing and dancing in our fanciful costumes made from crepe paper, until the finale when Santa Claus (played by a teacher) arrived in a cardboard sleigh and the whole audience went nuts. But the most eagerly awaited segment of the show was yet to come — the Nativity Scenes. A hush fell over the audience. The curtains parted to reveal the sixth-grade children who had been selected to be shepherds, animals, kings, angels, and so on, posed around a cradle with a doll in it. Looking on serenely were the two sixth graders chosen to represent Mary and Joseph. Each time the curtains closed and then reopened to a slightly different scene, the audience of parents and pupils ooohed and ahhhed. Nobody thought it was strange for a public school to have such a blatantly religious theatrical performance every year.
When I was in sixth grade, I decided I wanted the coveted part of Mary only because she was the star of the show. I had recently learned that Mary was Jewish and so was Jesus. I didn’t know the meaning of virgin and thought it was a title, like queen. Even if I had known, I would have qualified for the role. I saw no barrier to my playing the Virgin Mary, and I asked my teacher if I could be considered for the role. It didn’t seem hard to play her since all she had to do was sit still, gaze down at the cradle, and look serene. My teacher smiled gently and said, “I’m so sorry, we’ve already picked our Virgin Mary.” I was not surprised when I heard that Kathleen with the beautiful blonde hair and the Icelandic-blue eyes was chosen. Perhaps because of my unprecedented request, a Hanukkah tableau was suddenly added that year. The curtains parted and there stood about fifteen Jewish children, including me, wearing our dress-up clothes, singing “Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” as one of us pretended to light a menorah. No one ooohed or ahhhed, but the Jewish parents applauded wildly. We were no longer invisible. It was like a Hanukkah miracle.
As a child, I didn’t realize that I was part of a minority living in a predominately Christian country. I began to question why there were no Hanukkah decorations in town and no Hanukkah cards in the stores and nothing about Hanukkah on television where Christmas specials dominated the networks for weeks. My parents helped me understand that Christmas is a religious holiday that has become a national one. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, but we celebrated Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah with family gatherings and traditional food. Although unaffiliated, my parents expressed a fierce loyalty to Judaism and were adamant that we were not celebrating Christmas. They worked at instilling Jewish pride in me, and, eventually, I understood and embraced their message.
Things have changed since my grammar school days. I’ve watched the increasing recognition of Hanukkah over the years. It is recognized in many schools, stores, and some public spaces. A few years ago, Kwanzaa began to be acknowledged as well. None of this diminishes Christmas; it just includes other groups in the spirit of the season. Nowadays, “Happy Holidays” has found increasing acceptance as a holiday greeting — it covers a lot of holiday territory in our religiously diverse country. It is not political correctness run amuck as some complain; it is being aware that not everybody celebrates Christmas. Hanukkah has entered the mainstream.
Some are critical of the commercialization of the holiday, however; in a country where 70% of Jews (except for Orthodox) marry out of their religion, and 40% of millennials are unaffiliated, the annual big deal made over Hanukkah may be one of the few threads connecting a Jew with Judaism. To a little girl surrounded by Christmas festivities and traditions back in the fifties, Hanukkah was an important part of her identity. If Hanukkah can help in some small way with maintaining a Jewish identity, then I say, go right out and buy an electric menorah for the window and make some latkes, even from a mix.
When my son was in elementary school, he lobbied strongly for a “Hanukkah bush” like some of his friends had. I told him we were not celebrating Hanukkah in a way that was derived from Christmas. We lit the menorah each night and he got a present each night. I told him that was how we celebrated our holiday. I explained that we are a minority in a country where religious freedom is one of the most important rights given to us. That means we can assert our Jewishness and eschew the influences of the dominant culture without fear and be proud of our own beliefs and traditions. He was not happy with my answer, but he got over it. In later years he attended Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. Today he identifies himself as a Jew.
Not long ago, I was making latkes with my granddaughter and getting ready for another delicious Hanukkah meal when she asked, “Grandma, why can’t we have a Christmas tree? Everyone else has one.” Another generation, the same question. I understood where she was coming from. I looked down at her innocent, questioning face and saw the face of another little girl who wondered the same thing decades ago. “Not everyone else has one, but many people have them at this time of year. They are beautiful, but they are not part of our traditions,” I answered. I felt a little like that teacher of long ago who wouldn’t let me play the part of Mary. She was very kind about it, but she knew it would be inappropriate. I don’t know for sure, but I have always suspected that it was she who initiated the first Hanukkah performance at my school.
“But Joanne has one and she’s Jewish. And she has a train that runs on a track all around it and lots of presents underneath,” continued my granddaughter.
I knew her little friend and I knew that her parents liked to indulge her. A Christmas tree was just one of her many requests that was fulfilled. I also knew that in some families where one parent is Jewish and one is of a different faith, both holidays are celebrated and that makes sense. I wanted to help my granddaughter understand why I believed it was important for us not to celebrate Christmas. I looked into her beautiful perplexed brown eyes and said, “We are Jews and our people have survived over five thousand years, in part, because we don’t celebrate Christmas or any other holiday that is not ours. Throughout history we have fought every effort to make us become like the majority of people around us because we are proud to be exactly who we are: Jewish.”
She was silent. I knew she was probably too young to fully comprehend what I had said, but I hoped in time she would. We continued making the latkes, mixing the potato and matzoh meal and egg and shaping the patties, but it was as if a cloud had descended on our special cooking activity. I had to bring her back to the joy of our holiday.
“Tonight, is the last night of Hanukkah. Would you like to light the menorah?”
Her face lit up. “Yes, I would.”
“And do you know the prayer?”
She nodded and said, “And then I get my eighth present!” After a while she added, “Grandma, I love Hanukkah!”
I gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “So, do I, darling!”
Bethanie holds an Ed.D. in special education. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic City Press, The Palm Beach Jewish Journal, the Phoenix Jewish Journal, the Jewish Times of Atlantic County, and The Florida Writer. Her book “Fridays with Eva: Caring for and Learning from my Mother-in-law, a Holocaust Survivor” is published. She won first place in the 2019 Royal Palm Literary Awards in the category of non-fiction.