1. “Do you have a Chanukah bush?”
No. I only know a few Bushes — two were presidents and one burned next to Moses. While some families, especially original Eastern European immigrants, choose to have a bush or small tree in their homes during the holidays, it has NO religious connotation, and serves to help them (and their children) assimilate into American culture.
2. “Lucky you. I heard you give presents for each day of Chanukah.”
I believe you heard wrong. The tradition of giving to young ones dates back to medieval times, when families would give their children a coin or two, sometimes for answering questions correctly. Later, in the 18th/19th century, they added (or substituted) a piece of (more desirable) chocolate. The tradition of giving several presents on the first day, some days or during the entire eight days to both children and adults is a modern phenomenon borne by social pressure, children’s expectations and parent’s personal choices.
3. “Don’t your kids believe in Santa Claus?”
No. Why would they?
4. “Don’t you wish you could celebrate Christmas?”
This is difficult terrain for most Jewish parents to navigate, especially when many stores insist on playing only Christmas music starting well before Thanksgiving, Santa Clauses are everywhere and Christmas decorations are plastered on homes, stores and religious institutions across the country. This often makes for a difficult passage for many Jewish children, who see the pomp and pageantry, but don’t understand the religious implications. The best you can do is politely ask what traditions are upheld and leave it at that.
5. When taking your leave, saying “Merry Christmas.”
Many Americans believe that saying “Merry Christmas” means nothing except “Goodbye,” or “Happy Holidays,” or even “Good Wishes.” Although not everyone would agree, to many recipients (Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, etc.), this often smacks of religious bias and is another indicator that the masses still believe that nearly all Americans are Christian. Very few Jews would exit saying, “Happy Chanukah” except to other Jews.
6. “What do you call that candelabra you light?”
Technically, it’s called a Chanukkiah — a type of menorah with nine lights, eight of which symbolize one day for each of the eight days that the Eternal Light burned while the Jews waited for more holy oil. (It was intended and expected to only last one night). The ninth — the elevated central candle — is called the Shamash, or “helper candle,” which is used to light the others.
7. “Can you put your Jewish lights in your window?”
Yes. But, many in previous generations chose not to, fearing retribution, anti-Semitism and ostracism. Items like electric menorahs, strings of Chanukah lights and candles with the words “Chanukah” stamped on them are contemporary society’s answer to pop culture. However, electric menorahs also provide a non-combustible alternative to the real thing. To celebrate the “miracle,” Jews may choose this custom. If placed in a window, the Chanukkiah should face the public thorough-fare.
8. “Why isn’t Chanukah on the same day each year?”
This is a really good question for those using the traditional 12-month calendar. Chanukah always begins on the 25th day of Kislev. But, the Jewish calendar is 13 months long and starts on the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah (typically in September). All the dates follow. To elaborate further, Jews do not “mean to” have this coincide with Christmas, nor do they have the ability to move the date closer to Christmas so they don’t feel so alone.
9. “I don’t know what to say to you people. Do you say, “Have a good Chanukah, or Merry Chanukah? This is all so confusing.”
I can’t say that I ever feel “merry,” but a simple “Happy Chanukah” would be lovely.
10. “Oh, yeah, I know someone else who celebrates Chanukah. Do you know Lanny Goldberg?” (Substitute the name for anyone else Jewish in the United States).
I’m sure in some areas, Jewish people are few and far between, but with six million+ in the U.S., alone, we are not always from the same “tribe,” don’t often know each other and sometimes don’t care to, either.
11. “You probably wouldn’t want to visit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, right?” (Substitute the tree for any other highly visible religious icon).
This remains a personal preference for each family.
12. “Why do Jewish people eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas?”
Most stores are closed during Christmas Day. As assimilation continued in this country, many Jews found solace and an excuse to be together in Chinese restaurants (often open on that day, since their owners may also not celebrate Christmas). In a well-publicized answer given by (now) Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan during her confirmation hearings regarding her Christmas activities, she replied, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
13. “Is Chanukah the ‘Jewish Christmas?'”
This is a truly offensive question to most Jews. Chanukah is the “Celebration of Lights,” a relatively minor holiday in Jewish tradition commemorating a major Jewish victory over Antiochus and his people, who were Greeks and Hellenized Jews.