Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Hanukkah Bush

Tis the season once again for Christmas trees, carols, Santas, etc. The holy day of materialism is soon to be upon us, and once again, the mass emails are starting to pour in about Christmas; everything from chain letters that if I don’t send to ten people in the next five minutes some terrible thing will happen to someone. But if I send them out, I will have ten people angry with me for burdening them with that crap. Other people will send out emails warning me about the pagan origins of Christmas and that it has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. My favorite email was in my spam folder. It was advertising special keep Christ in Christmas gifts. I thought the keep Christ in Christmas was an anti-materialism movement. Now they even have special sale items to combat materialism. Oh well.

The real issue that presents itself every year, at least to Jewish people, is the issue of the Christmas tree. Most Christians agree that Christmas trees have absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and in fact, have nothing to do with anything religious. It is more a part of the secular holiday of Christmas, which is pretty much a winter festival. If this is the case, why can’t Jews have trees like everyone else? This is not a problem for Jews in Russia, where the tree is called a New Year’s Tree, and has no connection to a religious holiday. Its considered to be more like thanksgiving; nice but secular.

Some Jews tried to solve this problem with the myth of the Hanukkah bush. I know a lot of Jews who have them, but don’t admit it. The poor Hanukkah bush never really achieved legitimacy. Many Immigrant Jews in the early 1900’s adopted the secularized symbols of American Christmas. David Greenberg, writing in SLATE, wrote,”Enter the Jews. Around 1900, millions of eastern European Jews came to the United States, congregating in urban enclaves such as New York’s Lower East Side. Most adopted American traditions, including the newly secularized Christmas. “Santa Claus visited the East Side last night,” the New York Tribune noted on Christmas Day, 1904, “and hardly missed a tenement house.” Jews installed Christmas trees in their homes and thought nothing of the carols their children sang in the public schools.” (http://www.slate.com/id/10802/)

According to Greenberg, it wasn’t until the second generation of those immigrants that Christmas became an issue. My Aunt Bella, my grandmother’s older sister, had a tree every year for the kids, in spite of her Orthodox mother, who lived in an apartment upstairs with my grandmother. One day, my great-grandmother told my grandmother she was going downstairs to visit Bella. My grandmother tried to get her to stay and said she’d get Bella to come upstairs. My great-grandmother said no and went downstairs. My grandmother got on the phone and said, “Bella, get rid of the tree, Momma’s coming!” My aunt picked up the fully decorated tree and threw it in the closet. After she visited for a while, my great-grandmother came back to my grandmother’s apartment. When she got there, she said to my grandmother, “My stupid daughter doesn’t think I know about her tree? Branches were sticking out of the closet!” It wasn’t such a shonda (disgrace) in those days.

Today to have a tree or not has become an issue of Jewish identity and loyalty. When I encountered Jewish people who found I believed in Yeshua, one of the things I often got asked was if I had a Christmas tree, as if that was the litmus test on whether or not I was still Jewish. I know a lot of Jewish people who get trees but they are embarrassed about it around other Jews. The funny thing is, everyone agrees there is actually no religious significance to the tree in the first place. Ironically, in Germany, where the tree tradition got started, it is called a Tannenbaum, which means “great tree,” and also happens to be a Jewish surname.

The same issue presents itself at Halloween. Technically, Halloween is a Christian holiday, but in American culture is celebrated as a secular fall festival. Jewish kids, like their Christian counterparts, have no issues when it comes to collecting candy or dressing up in costumes. When I was in Hebrew School, the rabbi told us not to go out on Halloween, but instead to dress up and ask for candy on Purim, which has the same tradition. The problem with Purim, was that it takes place in March, which is a long way from October. If it coincided with Halloween, it would have been doable. I remember the kids in my class looking at each other like that wasn’t going to happen. We all knew that if we dressed up on Purim and tried collecting candy, no one was going to give us candy, and we would just look weird. We all went trick or treating on Halloween, and collected our candy. We weren’t worshiping the Devil, and we didn’t turn our backs on Judaism. We were in it for the candy. Its the same with Christmas, except that since Hanukkah coincides with Christmas, we elevated the observance of our Jewish winter holiday, so we were celebrating at the same time as our Christian friends. We have winter greetings, presents, songs and cards. They have Santa, we have Hanukkah Harry. The dividing point seems to be the tree. I’ve seen variations of the Hanukkah bush, that are either smaller than a Christmas tree, or done in blue and white, recalling Israeli colors, or having a star of David on top; noble attempts to create a kosher tree.

The crux of the matter comes down to what this symbol means not only to the individual, but also what it means to their community. As far as I’m concerned, a tree is neither here nor there. They are pretty, festive and fun, but not necessary. I do not think people who put up trees are involved in pagan worship, and by the same right, I don’t believe Jewish people who put up trees are traitors to their Jewish heritage. For some, it’s just putting a dash of color in an otherwise drab season. Sometimes a tree is just a tree. Abstaining from having a tree does not make me a better Jew any more than a non-Jew having a tree makes someone a Christian. My aunt Bella had a tree, but she was a good Jew her whole life. Rather than worrying about trees and decorations, we would do better to do the things the Torah actually commands us to do, whether or not a tree is in the house.

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15 thoughts on “Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Hanukkah Bush

  1. Russian Jew here…

    Dr. is correct, Russian Jews have traditionally put up a “New Year’s Tree” in their homes, and it was in no way associated with Christmas during the time of the Soviet Union. Many still do to this day (older generation), even in Israel.

    There’s, however, an interesting history behind this. In the Soviet Union, the change from religious (Christmas) to secular (New Year) use of evergreens was initiated in 1935. Until that year, the Soviet authorities have forbidden the use of Christmas Trees in their attempt to stamp out all religious observances. In 1935, however, the Soviet authorities came up with the idea of celebrating New Year in place of Christmas (in yet another historical holiday rebadging). The Bethlehem star on top of the tree became a five pointed Soviet red star, and on Stalin’s direct order the country celebrated it’s first New Year with the newly renamed “New Year’s tree,” with the Grandpa Frost in tow (Russian version of Santa Claus) – which most Russians (and some Russian Jews) do to this day. However, the modern Russia has by enlarge reverted to once again calling the tree a Christmas Tree.

  2. Thankyou Dr for your post. It was very refreshing. As a Christian I have always celebrated Christmas but a few years ago I was looking deeply into the hebraic roots of my faith and in so doing came across a few groups that where very into “everything that Christians do is Pagan” ideas. Some of what they said did make sense but a lot from my perspective went to far. They accused me of worshipping Satan and other rediculous statements. I must admit that I quite enjoy Christmas not because of Santa etc but because for me even though I know Jesus/Yeshua was born here, we can focus on Him and also because we can get together as families and friends. At the end of the day God know our hearts.

  3. We would never THINK of having a Christmas tree in our house, whether called a Chanukkah bush or not. We haven’t done that in many years. We do know a Jew, however, who has a plastic palm tree on his patio….

    On the other hand, when we go to visit family over the Christmas holiday, their Christmas tree bothers us not. It is very pretty, has zillions of really cute ornaments on it, and under it are PRESENTS.

    After we get back to our house, which has no trees inside it, we are still Jewish and our beliefs are just the same as before we went near the Christmas tree. No big deal.

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  7. Thank you for sharing your wise words Rabbi.

    In our Jewish home, we don’t have a tree, I just couldn’t do it….but we do have a “legitimate” Hanukkah Bush and have had one for the past 10 years. We found it at http://www.hanukkahbush.ca. In celebration of the Festival of Lights, we decorate with lots of lights, everywhere AND we light the menorah. During the Happy Holiday, we eat jelly filled sufganiyot, play dreidel and open PRESENTS! Oh what fun it is!!! (and oh how so pretty!)

    Interestingly enough, the dreidel game evolved through cultural assimilation and originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah, yet though during Hanukkah, we celebrate our victory over cultural assimilation, while playing the culturally assimilated dreidel game. I love it! The Origin of the Dreidel, reprinted by Rabbi David Golinkin from A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration can be found at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Hanukkah/At_Home/Dreidel.shtml

    Best wishes for peace and a very Happy Hanukkah.

    Esther
    Born in Israel, raised in Canada

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