Sensitive to being Jews in a suburb where had recently moved and we were a small minority, my mother, wanting us to feel as though we belonged, my mother created a tradition which was, although not completely original and unique, made Hanukkah different at our house and wound up becoming a tradition that lived on for many years. My mother introduced us to the tradition of a decorated “Hanukkah Bush.”
Unlike the predominantly Jewish neighborhood my sisters and I had begun our growing up within in Boston, when we moved west of the city to our own first home in the town of Framingham, everything was different. Among the most conspicuous changes was the one we noticed in winter. There were Christmas decorations everywhere. Each of our neighbors had a decorate Christmas tree that could be seen through the living room windows that all faced the street.
Their yards were checked with lights and Santa’s sleighs and reindeer. Of course, we were all aware of Christmas but had never found ourselves smack in the middle of it before.
Depending on your point of view, our mother was either a talented assimilator or a person trying to conform her family’s practices to those of the majority and, thereby, compromising our own beliefs. In any event, ostensibly motivated to help we kids feel a part of our new community, she found what to her was an acceptable compromise and created the following trans-sectarian Hanukkah
holiday tradition: She created a “Hanukkah Bush.”
Whether in the apartment in Boston’s Dorchester section or the new tract home in Framingham, we always had a few live plants in the home. The largest and most carefully tended was a Split Philodendron. The leaves were large and dark green and my mother would dust them and then wipe them with milk to make them shiny. She was VERY proud of that plant.
On the last day of school before the Christmas vacation in the year we first moved out of the city, my sisters and I arrived home to discover that that large plant, now occupying a vacant and readily visible corner in our brand new, cathedral ceilinged living room, now had a big blue star atop it!
Smaller stars, dreidles and menorahs had been taped to many of the leaves and a bright red afghan (that had been knitted many years ago by our Nana) was draped around the bottom of the plant.
We stood and stared. Our mother walked in and proudly announced that this was our family Hanukkah Bush and that, if we were good, we might find gifts under it for us on at least the first night of that upcoming Jewish historical observance. Being kids, this actually made sense to us. But it didn’t stop there. It would morph into a more complete package of new family traditions that
included a character named “Hanukkah Joe” who brought the gifts for us and the singing of Christmas carols right along with Hanukkah songs we had learned in Hebrew school.
My mother’s identity as a Jew was always quite important to her. She regarded these new traditions as necessary to help her children (and we all suspected, herself as well) feel more a part of the new world we had moved into.
In my own family, we do not ‘˜mix-and-match’ in this way, but as an interfaith family, we honor and celebrate both — separately!