The December Dilemma: Moving Beyond the Hanukkah bush

My wife and I are raising our family in a conservative Jewish home.  That said, she grew up in an interfaith family, and absolutely adored her Christmas tree.   What she missed wasn’t a religious connection, but rather, the warm holiday spirit that her Christmas tree evoked.

So why didn’t we just go ahead and get a Christmas tree and put a Star-of-David /  tree topper on top (ie. a Hanukkah bush)?  Well, let me first say that what works best for our family will not be right for everyone.  Get fifty Jews in a room and you’ll get sixty opinions. 

For my family, while we loved the idea of something big and festive for the holidays, and who doesn’t find a Christmas tree beautiful; what we really wanted was something where the Jewish iconography was the centerpiece of the design and not the afterthought.

So my brother and I worked up a completely new solution –a 6+ foot tall “Tree of Life” menorah; but with a twist.

  • We added garland to the branches of the menorah to represent a tree.  Menorahs with “Tree of Life” motifs date from biblical times.
  • We prominently placed a Star of David at the base of the center branch to reinforce the Jewish theme.
  • We set it up where we could add LED candles on top to mark each night of Hanukkah as well as add hundreds of string-lights reflecting that Hanukkah is the ‘Festival of Lights’.

What was important to us was that, unlike a Hanukkah bush, if a stranger saw the Menorah Tree on the street, while they would connect that it shares some common elements with a Christmas tree, they would innately know that it was different; Jewish, and special. It was a great compromise for our family.

Every family has their own unique ways of celebrating Hanukkah. So the Menorah Tree comes unadorned.  Some families avoid ornaments because it is ‘too close for comfort’ to Christmas; while others love that it is the beginning of a new family tradition.  That’s a very personal choice.  Just like a Hanukkah bush, we also know the Menorah Tree is not right for everyone.

This also misses the much larger point.  The best part of the Menorah Tree for us has been that it expands the celebration of Hanukkah beyond the kitchen tabletop and into the family room.  That Hanukkah is no longer celebrated for 10 minutes every night, but rather it embraces us all day, every day.   

We should also remember that as a people we have a long tradition of co-opting elements of popular culture.  The dreidel game that we all know and love is derived from the German Christmastime game of 'totum' from the 1500s.  That's not assimilation - nor is it any less special .   The dreidel game became our own.  That's the intent of the Menorah Tree.  

By having a large scale centerpiece, we elevate the holiday.   We see the lights of the Menorah Tree from when we wake up till when we go to sleep at night.  

This extension of Hanukkah’s reach profoundly and wonderfully affects our family.  When my kids are asked whether or not they have a Christmas tree, they answer proudly, almost defiantly, ‘no, we have a Menorah Tree’.  They love feeling special, unique, and, given the size of the Menorah Tree, finally on equal footing with all their friends.

Today’s world is so different than it was even 30 years ago when I was a kid.   Kids are pulled in so many directions, and everyone is so busy.  We have high rates of intermarriage and assimilation. 

We have to ask ourselves, what will keep our children connected to their Jewish heritage as they grow older?  The answer is the same thing that connected us: images from our youth that stand out against the blur of time. 

For my family, the Menorah Tree is a place to congregate around; to extend the holiday into the family room; to create our own personal tapestry and traditions.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing my kids freak out when it’s time to set up the Menorah Tree and turn sad when it comes down. 

These are the kinds of images that stick.

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