Will my daughter dress up Chanukah like Christmas, as I did

“Mommy?” my daughter asks in a whine that alerts me a complaint is about to follow. “Everyone at school is really excited about Christmas and no one is excited about Chanukah.”

It’s something I doubt I’d hear if she were attending a Jewish day school. But she’s not. And the complaint is there and I can commiserate. When I explain that Chanukah is a Jewish holiday that her classmates don’t celebrate, my own childhood memories of being The Only One swing sharply back into focus.

No one at my elementary school in Santa Rosa was excited about Chanukah either. “Ha-Na-what?” they said. Elmo from Sesame Street wasn’t around yet to share non-Christian holiday experiences with preschoolers. There were no Rugrats Chanukah episodes or funny Adam Sandler songs to bring the holiday into the public eye. Menorah lightings didn’t take place at the local mall.

Instead, Christmas surrounded me — on the airwaves and on television, at the department stores, on my neighborhood street and inside my school. “What are you doing on your Christmas vacation?” everyone asked each other. Where I was from, it was never called “winter break.”

As a minority of one in my large public elementary school, I shifted uncomfortably in my sneakers when my class sang “Away In A Manger” and I had to sing about the Little Lord Jesus laying down his sweet head. Year after year, Christmas trees decorated the school office and during art time we made Popsicle-stick ornaments to hang from our trees at home. Mine was a six-pointed star. I knew what it represented, even though I was too shy to explain.

I never voiced any of my discomfort at school, never questioned having to sing carols, never thought to ask that my holiday be represented, too. My desire was, simply, to fit in; I wanted to be like everyone else.

So at home, I begged for a tree and corralled my younger brother into begging right along with me. My mother insisted that there would be no tree in a Jewish home, but we eventually struck a deal — she’d allow a few scant pine branches to be stuck in the soil of the rubber tree plant on the hearth. It was 80 percent rubber tree plant and 20 percent pine.

Pleased to have something, I decorated it with a nondenominational paper chain, hummed the Christmas carols I had practiced at school and admired our Almost Tree beyond the glow of the menorah candles. We played dreidel for peanuts and pennies in front of the new plant species, and then watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman” on TV.

Over the years, the Chanukah bush evolved — pine branches eclipsed the rubber tree and ultimately my mother gave in after learning that decorated trees were an ancient pagan tradition representing the renewal of life.

But, to be sure that we knew we were still Jews, she cut two triangles from cardboard, fashioned them into a star and covered the geometric design with shiny silver tin foil. When the pinnacle of our Jewish identity was firmly in place, she relaxed, even bought tinsel. Then came strands of rainbow lights. The tin-foiled six-pointed star always stood at the top, but there was no denying it, we had gone all the way.

Did having a tree make me feel less Jewish? Not when Chanukah cards dangled from its branches. But perhaps the tree did represent just how far we had assimilated into non-Jewish society. Here I was, a first-generation American, daughter of Jewish immigrants, growing up in a suburb with a microscopic Jewish population.

Our relatives lived across the country and across continents. We weren’t affiliated with any Jewish community, one that might have helped to buoy us, to make us feel not so alone, so we made the best of what was around us. And what was around us were Christmas-celebrating tree-trimming non-Jews.

While I look back fondly on my pine-scented holiday years, I also wonder what the alternative might have been: a bevy of dreidel-spinning candle-lighting friends, a giant menorah in the mall, “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) on the radio, latkes on my lunch tray. How might it have felt never having to hear Ha-Na-what?

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].