Hanukkah has always been problematic for me. Although I had a Bar Mitzvah, my parents were not religious. However, they did have a strong cultural identification as Jews. As a result, when non-Jewish friends and acquaintances would wish them Happy Hanukkah during the Christmas season, my parents would exchange the appropriate pleasantries. But my father would silently steam. “If someone wants to wish this Jew a happy holiday,” my father would later say, referring to himself, “then they should do it during Passover, or Yom Kippur, or Rosh Hashanah. But not for some minor holiday that just happens to fall around Christmas.”
My father was not an outlier in his belief in the relative lack of significance of Hanukkah. As the website myjewishlearning.com states, “Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday from the perspective of Jewish tradition, its importance magnified in large part due to its proximity to another major December celebration featuring twinkly lights and abundant gifts.”
I had a similar version of the same conundrum. Although the public elementary school that I attended had a number of Jewish students, none of the teachers were Jewish. Back in the 1960s, Christmas was regularly celebrated in public schools. From the end of Thanksgiving until Christmas vacation (which was what winter break was called then), my elementary school had a large, fully decorated Christmas tree in the main courtyard of the school, adjacent to the cafeteria and lunch area.
Next to the Christmas tree was a smaller shrub (about ⅓ the size of the Christmas tree), with a large Star of David at its top. Across the shrub’s branches was a blue and silver streamer saying “Happy Hanukkah.” Hanging from the branches were blue or silver cutouts of dreidels. I was told this was a Hanukkah bush. When I first heard this, I was taken aback and confused. But after a while, I took it as patronizing. A Hanukkah bush is not a real thing. As reported in the NY Jewish Week, “Rabbi Shmuel Kogan says that the practice of a Chanukah bush is foolish and there is no reason for it.” The paper goes on to quote Kogan as saying, “In most cases, such practices stem from ignorance of Jewish tradition.”