I used to want you in my life. Throughout childhood, I thought you’d help me fit in, while still holding onto my Jewish roots and without completely conforming to the majority; short and stout with blue and white lights would’ve done the trick. However, with age and wisdom, I’ve come to learn that we’re not meant to be together.
As a public school student in Orange County, I was surrounded by few Jews and many Christmas trees. Each December, my peers discussed their unique ornaments, desired gifts and holiday hams. They shared experiences sitting on an overweight man’s lap at the mall who’d later sneak into the family’s house through the chimney, steal cookies, drink from the family’s gallon of milk (most of which my parents considered either punishable by law or against sanitation code), and finally unload half the Toys-R-Us inventory that he carried on a reindeer in the sky and dropped off in each kid’s family room under strategically arranged trees that were uprooted from the forest.
This plot seemed implausible (I was a relatively pragmatic child), and yet, it struck my curiosity. I’d sit near the window staring at neighbors’ chimneys for hours trying to catch the jolly, bearded man in the act. Alas, I’d fall asleep before midnight and upon waking in the morning, I figured he must’ve either been a night-owl or the whole thing was a hoax. This fascination with Mr. Claus was withheld from my family. In retrospect however, what else could my parents have imagined I was doing every December 24th staring out the window into the dark of night?
Meanwhile, around the same time of year, my family celebrated a different holiday. One filled with fried potatoes, spinning tops and the subsequent bartering of chocolate, and gift-giving that, spread over the course of eight days rather than the bulk gift-reception of our gentile peers, taught us patience and delayed gratification.
We quickly learned that Hanukkah wasn’t about gifts and sweets, though we enjoyed them immensely. Each night of the holiday, my brothers and I felt the tight-knit bond of family, as we sat together around the fireplace, lighting the menorah and listening to our father read stories about Hanukkah’s true significance. My mother came to our elementary school and made fresh latkes for the entire class while discussing Hanukkah’s history. Our classmates listened in awe as Mom shared the resilience and relentless survival of the Jews. Through these types of educational experiences, my parents instilled a strong sense of Jewish identity and pride, thus withering my desire for a Hanukkah bush.
The other kids helped me understand that I got to celebrate eight nights of holidays rather than just one “mega-event.” I later realized that, in addition to Hanukkah, the Jews get to celebrate Shabbat; a 25-hour vacation, 52 days a year. Then, in between these extravaganzas, there were more Jewish holidays throughout the year than presents under my friends’ Christmas trees. Finally, I understood why there was no need for my previously coveted Hanukkah bush.
Reminiscing on my upbringing, I’ve learned that I owe much of my sense of Jewish pride to my parents. They understood that a Jewish child can feel marginalized in an environment where they’re indeed the minority. Knowing this, they made extra efforts so Jewish holidays were important and special. “Missing School for Shul” was a nice touch, but as a child, Hanukkah was what really won us over.
So, dear Hanukkah bush, you were a nice fantasy but I guess I never needed you. I suppose I’ll toss you into the pile with the “Holiday Armadillo,” “Hanukkah Rabbit,” and all my other creative, yet unfulfilled holiday figures.
Adam Chester lives in Los Angeles with his wife Kelly and is in graduate school working towards his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.