FYI – I am Jewish. I am not in St. Nick’s address book, but don’t count me out come December. I still look forward to the holiday season and I was recently asked some questions about experiencing Christmas as a Jew as well as questions about Jewish holidays, customs and culture.
1. Why is Hanukkah spelled so many different ways? Chanukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, Channukah, etc.?
There is one way to spell Hanukkah in Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה
The Hebrew alphabet (called the Aleph Bet) has different letters and some letters do not correspond to the English alphabet (like there is no Hebrew version of the letter Z). Correspondingly, there are some letters in the Hebrew language that do not match the English alphabet, this is where the spelling variation comes into play.
The first letter in Hanukkah is a guttural “chuh”sound, like you’re trying to clear your throat. This letter in Hebrew (chet) does not exist in English, so you see a combination of Ch or H to get the “chuh” sound at the beginning of the word.
Then, K and a hard C sound the same in English, so they are used interchangeably to spell the last syllable of Hanukah, the “kah” part (Hewbrew letter kaf).
I guess people just like mixing it up with two ks, two cs or just one of each. Meh, to each his own.
2. What do interfaith families do around the holidays? Do they choose one, or celebrate both?
My husband and I are both Jewish, but my friends who are interfaith couples typically celebrate both holidays in their home. What I have noticed is the family will identify with one religion, as in, “We’re raising the kids Jewish,” and most of the time it means they have both a menorah and Christmas tree, but the kids attend Jewish day care or religious school.
I think it would be really hard for the Christian partner to not bring the traditions they grew up loving to their own home as adults. I cannot think of an interfaith couple I know that doesn’t have a Christmas tree somewhere, but also blue and silver Hanukkah ornaments and dreidels displayed, as well. So in my experience, both!
3. Have Jewish people noticed just how insanely commercialized Christmas has become?
Uhhhh, YES! I was given the stink eye from someone working at HomeGoods when I asked if they had any fall decorations and it was the first week of November. Their look told me, “Are you kidding? We only have Christmas stuff out now.” While I scored some awesome sales on fall décor, everything was red, green, and tinsel. Just the day before it was Halloween!
I personally do not mind this because I love the season of joy and merriment. Sure, I don’t get a personal visit from Santa, but I can still enjoy all the beautiful decorations everywhere I go and listen to the catchy tunes on the radio. I know plenty of Jews who do not care for Christmas everywhere around the clock, but I’m cool with it.
Also, I look at Black Friday and after Christmas sales as my chance to save money on really big purchases for myself. In the past I have bought a big screen TV, deep freezer, new computer and replenished my kids’ winter wardrobes with Black Friday and Cyber Monday (amazing sales and free shipping online!). EVERYTHING goes on sale, so big purchases become much more affordable. I imagine we will purchase a new queen mattress next year. Why not save money when I can?
4. If so, how does that make them feel about their own (not so commercialized) December holiday?
Compared to what I grew up with, Hanukkah is SUPER commercialized now. When I was little, you couldn’t find any blue and silver decorations outside of your synagogue gift shop and the makeshift Hanukkah store my religious school would set up so little kids could buy their parents gifts for less than $5. Now, finding a blue and silver display in any store is a delightful surprise! When I was little, I was undoubtedly bummed my holiday didn’t have as much hoopla (even the token Hanukkah songs we learned for the Winter Choir concert were much more somber compared to Jingle Bells).
As a child, I did not understand why we could not put up twinkle lights on the outside of our house because after all, we are celebrating “The Festival of Lights.” In reality, I have no desire to climb onto my roof and defy death to put up lights. I can admire what my neighbors do, I can watch reruns of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and I’m saving money and sanity. I have my electric menorah gracing my upstairs window. It’s perfect.
5. What does it feel like to be a minority in all of this chaos?
I embrace it now. I don’t need to stress about making holiday plans to celebrate Christmas with every single friend and family member. I don’t have a “Christmas shopping list.” I am not stressed over finding the perfect gift for anyone! I feel like I reap the best of both worlds. I see all the sparkle and magic, but I don’t need to jump in and participate.
As a kid, I REALLY wanted to decorate a Christmas tree, so my best friends let me help decorate their trees. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t have to deal with the maintenance or clean-up of dead pine needles. In high school, my best friend and I started a tradition of baking Christmas cookies together. Being the minority means I am cherry picking my favorite parts of the holiday without obligation to do it all.
6. I always heard there are other Jewish holidays more significant than Hanukkah, but since it is around Christmas, it gets more attention. Is this true?
This is true! Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the holiday of Yom Kippur are more holy than Hanukkah. My mom grew up in Israel where Hanukkah was no big deal. In my opinion, it is definitely hyped up in America because of Christmas.
In my home now, we try to keep it real with my kids and we don’t go overboard on gifts for the girls. There are eight nights to celebrate, but we give them chocolate (also known as Hanukkah gelt – earned when you win playing the dreidel game) or a new book as a typical gift; we’re not purchasing Barbie’s Dream House for Hanukkah.
7. Do people really have Hanukkah bushes?
I’ve been around for 35 years and I have yet to see a Hanukkah bush, or meet “Hanukkah Harry.” Again, I think this is something created to balance out the attention Christmas gets. Similar to “Mensch on a Bench,” which sounds like Elf on a Shelf’s out-of-town Jewish cousin. Really peeps? No thanks.
8. How do you feel about people wishing you Merry Christmas?
I don’t get offended when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. In my mind, it’s the same as wishing someone a happy holiday. This is not necessarily #Woke, but I am OK with giving some leeway. I always say Happy Holidays to folks because you never know if someone is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic or Atheist (the list goes on). I’m not about to make assumptions about anyone’s faith, culture or personal beliefs.
Truth is, I would like to have a merry Christmas filled with hanging out with my family in jammies all morning long, a leisurely breakfast, watching/going to the movies and eating Chinese take-out (all the stereotypes are true here).
Conversely, if someone asks me something specific about Christmas, like how’s my Christmas shopping going, or what my plans are for the holiday, I politely say, “Great! We don’t celebrate Christmas, so I don’t need to shop and Dec. 25 is completely open for me!”
Fun fact: my due date for my oldest daughter was Christmas Day. I was really pumped to have something to celebrate on Christmas Day, at last, but she was born three days later. Bah humbug.