By Chava Barner
I got Hallmark’s “Holiday Preview” catalog in the mail the other day. Inside was a sneak peak of all of the new ornaments they have coming out. Obviously, I need to add the new miniature Fisher Price toy ornaments (the Busy People Airplane and Schoolhouse!!) to my collection; but I’m still trying to decide what ornament each of the children will receive this year on the first night of Hanukkah, as we have every year for over a decade. Yep, we’re one of *those* families—we have a Hanukkah Bush, or as we like to call it, our “Annual Festive Gift-Giving Tree.” I know what you’re thinking: we’re assimilating, we’re giving in to cultural Christian peer pressure, we’re simply bad Jews. I understand this line of thinking, but I disagree… let me tell you why.
As we all know, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish festival that most Americans tend to conflate with other mid-winter holidays until the general understanding of the Festival of Lights is that it’s “Jewish Christmas.” It is this misperception of Hanukkah that leads to gimmicky Hanukkah themed tchochkes, or what we call in our house “cheap Chinese plastic crap.” Giant, inflatable, dreidel balloons for the front lawn; slinkies, yo-yos, juggling balls, pens and neckties all adorned with chanukkiah clip art graphics; smiling wind-up dreidels that walk; light-up pens; finger puppets; and more….all available online or inside your Sisterhood Judaica shop in December. This hyper-commercialization, devoid of any connection to the actual meaning of the holiday, is far less Jewish than my family’s twenty-dollar artificial tree. I’m sure that there are those of you who will argue that there are more uniquely Jewish ways to create this experience for our family. You may even be right. But, to my mind, the evergreen tree is a symbol that transcends religion or culture- indeed, the custom of decorating an evergreen tree is present in nearly every European culture’s as well as in other places around the world. It is a nearly universal symbol of hope and renewal, themes that are in perfect accord with the sentiments of Hanukkah.
Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, my husband goes down to the basement and brings up the cardboard box containing our “bush.” The whole family helps to set it up and decorate it with white lights, handmade garland make of calico strips braided together, a stained-glass magen david on the top and (most importantly to me) our ornaments. There’s the little gazebo “music box”, with the even-smaller couple inside who dance in circles when the key is turned; which was a gift to my step-daughter the same year she moved north to live with her father and I. There’s a pressed-tin house with tiny cellophane windows that glow with light- a reminder of the milestone purchase of our first home together. I always sigh when I hang the round, red ceramic Buddha ornament that I purchased when my son was an infant. His delightfully round belly led to the nickname “Buddha baby.” This ornament took on a new, bittersweet meaning after we learned that his round little belly was one of the few visible symptoms of the disease that would almost kill him just a few years later. I’ve toyed around with the idea of displaying these ornaments in a way that doesn’t involve a tree- hanging them from garland, perhaps, or lining them all up on the mantel. But every year, my family rebels against the idea of losing the tree. Not because they want to be like their Christian peers (truth be told, we don’t have many Christian friends) but because of the memories each glass, plastic or metal bauble evoke within us as we gently remove each one from their tissue paper wrapping each year. Each ornament is a memory, and the tree is a place where we gather as a family to laugh, to reminisce, and to often a quick and silent prayer of thanks for the past year we’ve been blessed to share.
And so, every year in mid-December, visitors to our home will see the electric channukiah glowing in our front window. If they come inside, they’ll see four more across our fireplace mantle: the bright multi-colored ceramic one that belongs to my stepdaughter; the round peace-sign chanukkiah that my Veteran husband purchased from ModernTribe; my son’s little silver one- more traditional in design, but so small it can only be filled with birthday candles; and my own low, “garland of flowers” chanukkiah. Each one is carefully lit and blessed, our mantle ablaze with warmth by the end of the festival. And there in the corner, its glass balls reflecting light from dancing flames, is our evergreen; which like our family, grows fuller with memories year after year.