When Benny Hill joked, “Roses are reddish, violets are bluish, if it weren’t for Christmas, we’d all be Jewish,” he may have had it backward. Growing up in a suburban New York neighborhood with a large Jewish population, I never envied my Christian friends their indoor pine tree or pudgy guy who slid down the chimney. My family had its own holiday, Chanukah — eight magical nights of candles flickering, dreidels spinning, latkes sizzling, and parents bearing presents (good thing, because we didn’t even have a chimney). What was there to envy?
It wasn’t until I moved to Northern California and had my own children the truth hit me: Outside of New York and a few other places, Christmas dwarfed Chanukah the way the New York Yankees dwarfed the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The two holidays weren’t even in the same league.
My first clue as to Chanukah’s national insignificance was the grocery store. During the entire month of December, I couldn’t even buy a few bananas without the checker asking me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. Because I didn’t have anything for which to get ready, should I bother explaining I was not on the red and green team — or smugly reply that I was ready, a response that was technically closer to the truth than a lie.
Even more confusing was finding Chanukah candles. I’m sure we weren’t the only Jewish family in town, but the supermarket where I shopped played “Where’s Waldo” with the Chanukah candles each year, making sure to never display them in the same spot twice. To make things trickier, they staffed the store for the entire month of December with only people who had never heard of a menorah. If I were silly enough to ask one of the clerks where the Chanukah candles were, I either got a puzzled stare or was directed to the “Jewish aisle,” a few feet of shelf space which usually housed leftover Matzoh, but no candles
As my children evolved from babies to people, I slowly realized their Chanukahs were going to look very different from mine. One day my daughter came home from preschool and informed me that Courtney’s mommy’s latkes were way better than the ones I cooked (hinting that maybe I should get her recipe). When I called Courtney’s mother to learn her secret to great-tasting latkes, it turned out she had merely heated frozen hash brown patties in the microwave. The woman had never heard of latkes before, but when she looked at the recipe, she figured hash browns were close enough. (Actually, it’s not a bad idea in a pinch).
The next holiday season I was surprised to see a big poster hanging in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom with the title “Christmas Vocabulary Words” hand-written by the teacher in big block letters. Among the words she had neatly printed on her list were Hanukkah and menorah. Who knew these were just part of Christmas?
As the years passed, my children had fun sharing Chanukah with their non-Jewish friends. I enjoyed many déjà vu moments watching them make predictions on which candle would burn out last or whose dreidel could spin the longest. The magic of Chanukah was still there, but my children were like Jewish ambassadors introducing their friends to their exotic holiday. “You mean you get presents for eight nights?” one friend inquired skeptically. “Your mom lets you light your own candles?” another asked in amazement. We printed out the words to the Chanukah blessings phonetically in English so everyone could sing along. Even the dog chimed in.
Despite our token public relations efforts, things haven’t changed much. In most of the country, the December holidays are still lumped together as Christmas. Even many religious people who oppose the secular emphasis on Christmas presents and Santa Claus have made it a crusade to insist that all merchants wish everyone a “Merry Christmas,” which to me is like wishing everyone a “Happy Birthday” just because it happens to be your birthday.
Miraculously, though, it always works out in the end. After the annual Chanukah candle hunt and eight nights of Chanukah, I get to relax when Christmas rolls around. Like many Jewish people, I am always ready for Christmas — with some take-out Chinese food and a good movie.