Real Life

Hanukkah resembles the Fourth of July more closely than Christmas. So why the trees and other quasi-Christian symbols?
Rand Carlson

Even though Lara Naaman is a 100 percent purebred Jew, she celebrates Christmas. Once, when she was younger, Lara lined up eight miniature Christmas trees and lit one each night of Hanukkah. Her mother had a pink and green tree color-coordinated to match her living room, as well as stockings on the mantle for Lara, her brother and their five cats. Lara even believed in Santa until she was seven.

They celebrated Christmas because the holiday is more fun than Hanukkah, says Lara, now 25.

Just about every Christmastime-sucks-for-Jewish-kids story starts out with a poor little child wishing his family could be like Lara's and buy a tree. A menorah, after all, burns for only 15 minutes. A Christmas tree goes up in November and lasts till after New Year's Day. Besides, it's insane to run a model train around a menorah.

For Jews, it's hard not to get sucked into the commercialization of Christmas. It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street can be found on TV practically every night from Thanksgiving to Christmas; holiday songs pour from public speakers; Santa takes orders in every mall; schools have Christmas pageants; and overzealous people write "Happy Birthday, Jesus" in flashing lights on their lawns.

Instead of battling with their children to try to explain why Jews don't have Christmas trees, some Jewish parents have stopped their kids from pining after those Christian pines and bought their own.

Usually Houston Jews buy run-of-the-mill Christmas trees and decorate them with blue and white balls, ribbons and blue lights, says Abraham Hakakian, an Iranian Jew who owns Plants N Petals. (Unless they want them to match their couch and curtains, like Lara's mom.) Some drape dreidels and mini-menorahs on the branches with other, less-Christmasy ornaments.

It's a hard time of year for Jewish parents, Hakakian says, because their children often feel like outsiders during Christmas, particularly when nearly every home in the neighborhood has a glittering evergreen. Jewish kids don't like going to school and handing out Christmas cards and gifts and getting nothing in return. If you've watched any Christmas cartoon (and who hasn't?), you know the only creature who doesn't have a tree is the Grinch, and no one wants to touch him with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole! Well, nobody wants to touch him until the end, that is, when he assimilates, comes to Christmas dinner, sits next to little Cindy Lou Who and carves a very unkosher-looking roast beast.

"I have two boys, and I don't know what to do for them," Hakakian says. "It's a struggle to explain why I'm selling Christmas trees and we can't have one in the house."

So for his kids, he makes six-foot-tall tin-foil menorahs (the kind some people stick in the front yard with tiki torches). For his special customers, he says, he makes Hanukkah bushes, window decorations and table centerpieces, but not trees.

"We are not vertical people," he says. "We are horizontal people. Jewish people don't like to get on a ladder. We put things where we can reach -- any higher than that, we get a goy to do it."

He also makes pussy willow menorahs and Stars of David out of glittered tree branches and twigs.


He draws a picture. It looks as depressing as Charlie Brown's pathetic little tree.

"It's not depressing," he says. "You can see the ornaments better."

He doesn't like making Hanukkah bushes, he says. Actually, he tries to discourage it. He doesn't take pictures of the finished product, and he would never have one in his own home. They're too Christian, he says. It would seem like he's trying too hard to fit in.

Which is the whole reason rabbis are against Hanukkah bushes. Hanukkah is an anti-assimilation story; it's about being Jewish despite adversity, despite the pressure to conform to the majority.

In case you haven't got your big book of Jewish holidays handy, the story goes like this: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine. He left the Jews alone; then he died. When Israel came under Antiochus Epiphanes's rule, the king decided to force everyone to Hellenize. He forbade Jews to observe the Sabbath and wouldn't let them circumcise their sons. He put statues of Greek gods in the temple and ordered Jews to sacrifice pigs on the altar. Outraged, the Maccabees went to the mountains and waged war. They won, reclaimed Jerusalem and rededicated the temple. But they had only enough untainted oil to light the synagogue's menorah for one night -- the eternal flame has to be kept lit at all times. The miracle is that the oil lasted eight nights.

But not all Jews were on the Maccabees' team. There was a civil war between the Jews, since some wanted to assimilate and become Hellenists -- they didn't mind the statues, they liked the Greek gods and togas. They wanted to be like everyone else.

Centuries later that sentiment still holds. When American Jews moved south, they were far away from other Jews, and surrounded by Christians. That's when they started having Christmas trees, says Rabbi Jeff Clopper of Congregation Emanu El. Sometimes they called them Hanukkah bushes because they didn't want to call them Christmas trees.

"It wasn't necessarily seen as a Christian thing," Clopper says, "but as an American thing."

That's the way Josh Danart's mother saw it when he was growing up in Washington, D.C. She put a tree in their living room, complete with a model train running around the base, just because she thought it'd look nice, not because she wanted to be Christian.

"It was kinda eerie to me," says Josh, 28. He smashed the ornaments. "I knew we weren't supposed to have one. It was a Martha Stewart thing -- there was no symbolism."

No matter how hard you try, there can't be any Jewish symbolism or meaning attached to a Christmas tree, says Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Congregation Or Hadash.

"A tree represents the eternal nature of Jesus and God -- it's an evergreen. It doesn't represent anything to Jews," Osadchey says. "The tinsel on it is angel hair. The balls represent the drops of blood from Jesus' crown of thorns, and the star on top is the star of Bethlehem. Even the gifts at the bottom are a remembrance of the wise men's gifts. And even gifts at the bottom aren't terribly Jewish."

Jews give gifts -- just not this time of year. (Raisins and almonds and chocolate gelt are traditional Hanukkah gifts.)

"Hanukkah is a military victory over the Greeks. We don't give gifts on the Fourth of July, right? Hanukkah is like the Fourth of July," says Osadchey.

Like Independence Day, Hanukkah is about freedom. Religious freedom. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Lighting the menorah symbolizes Jews staying Jewish. Jews with Hanukkah bushes are ashamed of themselves and ashamed of being Jewish, says Rabbi Lazer Lazaroff, director of Chabad House-Lubavitch. They're covering up their past with tinsel and twigs.

"The Hanukkah bush isn't just irrelevant to Hanukkah, it negates the message of Hanukkah," says Rabbi Jonathan Kohn, at Congregation Beth Am. "One miracle of Hanukkah is that it occurs precisely at the time of year when the message is most needed by the Jewish people -- because its message is that it can be good to be different."

And being different, being Jewish, is what the Maccabees fought for, says Clopper. Hanukkah is the Hebrew term for "dedication," and when they rededicated the synagogue they didn't spend a lot of time landscaping.

It's not that Jewish people are against trees. As Rabbi Steven Morgan from Beth Yeshurun points out, we call the Torah the tree of life, and the menorah itself is metaphorically a tree. Each candle is a separate branch that stems from the trunk, he says. Therefore modern biblical scholars say the menorah is our Hanukkah tree.

It's just a less flashy "tree," and one that doesn't get much airtime on sitcom holiday specials. But the menorah shouldn't try to compete with the Christmas tree. That's the very problem with Hanukkah bushes: They're a Judeo-Christian hybrid that dilutes both cultures, explains Osadchey.

"They're disrespectful of the holiday of Christmas," Osadchey says. "They rob Christmas of its distinct message. The Hanukkah bush business is pandering to people's need to belong to the majority. To put it in a Jewish home gives a very confusing message to children. I wouldn't put a crucifix in my home."

E-mail Wendy Grossman at

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