"Mom, whose birthday comes on Hanukkah?" my 6-year-old, Benjamin, asked the other day as we dragged our sled to the park after the first snowstorm.
I didn't understand the question. "What do you mean, Ben?"
"Christmas is a birthday," Ben clarified.
I was taken aback. We're Jewish and I hadn't gotten around to telling my kids the Nativity story quite yet, but obviously someone else had. "Whose birthday?" I asked, stalling.
"Jesus," replied Ben, matter-of-factly.
I was about to launch into frankincense and myrrh, when the sledding hill came into view and I was saved by Ben's distraction.
But not for long. On our way home, passing neighborhood shops aglow with ornaments and tinsel, Ben's 4-year-old sister, Molly, asked, "When are they going to put up the Hanukkah decorations, Mommy?"
It's not news that Christmas arrives like a tidal wave immediately after Thanksgiving, nor that it's become a secular holiday for many who celebrate it. In fact holly and stockings are ubiquitous even in my Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood, home to a disproportionate number of Jews. And it's widely acknowledged that over the years Jews have revved up Hanukkah in reaction to the Christmas hoopla. What's new for me this season is having children of inquiring age who want to know why we don't have a Christmas tree and why we observe a holiday that most of the country does not.
For the past several months, I've been interviewing prominent American Jews about their Jewishness for a book I'm writing, and it's clear that Christmas-envy among Jews has existed for decades. Dustin Hoffman told me that, as a kid, he made a "Hanukkah bush" out of bagels; Leonard Nimoy decorated a rubber plant; Mike Wallace cut "Santas" out of the newspaper. For many Jewish kids growing up, Hanukkah simply wasn't "as good" as Christmas, and, in fact, many ended up adding a tree -- unambivalently -- to their family traditions once they became adults and had a family. It has occurred to me during these conversations that if, as children, they had enjoyed a comparable celebration every December -- with rituals that felt just as magical, just as momentous -- they might not have had the unshakable sense of being left out.
I have always been strangely unconflicted about not celebrating Christmas, probably because my mother always worked overtime to make Hanukkah a blockbuster event in our home; I actually pitied my friends who only had one day of presents compared to my eight and who didn't mount a full-scale reenactment of the Maccabee victory in their living rooms. This year I'm beginning to see what a feat that was on my mother's part: that we savored our holiday to the point where we not only didn't feel cheated on Christmas morning but actually felt lucky to be Jews.
It wasn't just about getting gifts for a week (though I'll never forget receiving my first record album -- Billy Joel's "The Stranger"). It was about the warmth of family tumult. Every year, Mom orchestrated a boisterous party where every relative from Aunt Tilly to Aunt Pearl wedged into our apartment along with half of our parents' friends, dipping crisp potato latkes into sour cream and squashing us with overperfumed hugs. It was a time when dreidels offered nightly suspense, and "Rock of Ages" ("Maoz Tzur") was just as comforting as "Noel."
I never gave much thought to how I'd counter Christmas once I had children of my own, but through their eyes, I see that our holiday doesn't exactly come to life in this city the same way. The stacked, fragrant fir trees on the sidewalk, the Christmas medleys playing in every store, the Hallmark television specials, are all powerfully attractive to a child, and there is no comparable Hannukah blitz. I feel no need to shelter Ben and Molly from the Christmas standards (I've always tuned into "Rudolph" and warbled my share of "Silent Nights"), but I am beginning to see that it's up to me to shape their traditions now -- to make them just as sensory, just as thrilling as mine were for me. What my husband and I choose to do with them at this time of year -- every year -- will lay the groundwork, not only for their religious identities but for their lifetime memories.
As I continue to interview Jews who have lived public lives and rarely defined themselves by their Jewishness, I've noticed a recurring sentiment in nearly every exchange -- whether I'm talking to Justice Stephen Breyer, Sarah Jessica Parker or Kenneth Cole: that Jewishness is felt most acutely in the flashes of ritual. A menorah here, a matzo ball there, a Sabbath blessing -- the memory, if not the practice of it. Almost uniformly, there is also a staunch sense of pride in a people's survival. So the Jewish identity described by most of the people I've spoken to is not found in the Torah (few have opened it), nor in any synagogue (most call it boring), or even in their visits to the Red Sea. It's in the history of endurance and in the small customs that manage to reanimate childhood. Yet despite how the customs resonate for people, few recall any particular Hanukkah fanfare. "We lit candles," most say, and that's about it.
The lesson I take away is how important it is not just to create ritual but to make it captivating. When a well-meaning salesperson asks Molly, "Are you excited about Santa this year?" (which happened last week), I don't want her to feel embarrassed to say, "Actually, Santa's not our guy." Not because I aim to be virtuous or tribal, but because I want her to feel genuinely enchanted by her own story, her own festival.
The word "Hanukkah" literally means rededication. After reclaiming the holy temple that the Syrian-Greeks had ransacked, the Maccabees wanted to rededicate it by igniting the lamp that represents their enduring faith, the "eternal light." They found only enough oil to last for one day, but of course, it burned miraculously for eight.
So tonight, I'm going online to find a recipe for latkes and to shop for toys because I have to come up with 16 presents. I'll soon be giving one a night to each of my children, in front of a menorah lit by their small fingers. It's my turn to build a tradition, and to rededicate my own.