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Hanukkah bush


Hanukkah bush

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"Hanukkah bush" is a lighthearted name for a decorated tree, similar or identical to a Christmas tree, placed in a Jewish home during the winter holiday season. It is used by assimilationist Jewish families in the United States; that is, families that try to fit into U.S. culture by adopting customs that they do not see as seriously conflicting with Judaism. A "Hanukkah bush" can simply be a Christmas tree by another name, or it can be one that has been Judaicized by the use of Judaic-themed ornaments.

As celebrated in the U.S., Hanukkah often syncretizes some of the less-religious Christmas customs. One of these is the Christmas tree. Not all Jews perceive Christmas trees in the same way. Anita Diamant says, "When [a Jew] looks at a Christmas tree, he or she may be seeing two thousand years of virulent persecution by Christians against Jews." [1] But many Americans do not see Christmas trees as being closely associated with the religious aspects of Christmas; for example, Christmas trees are commonly accepted in workplaces as pleasant, non-sectarian decorations for "the holiday season."

Holiday trees are frowned on by many rabbis[2], but a few fairly liberal non-Orthodox find no problem with it. In answer to the question "Is it OK for a Jewish family to have a Christmas tree," Rabbi Ron Isaacs[3] writing in 2003 says:

Today it is clear to me that the tree has become a secular symbol of the American commercial Christmas holiday, and not of the birth of Jesus. So, whether or not to have one depends on the character and judgement of each individual family. There are certainly Jewish families that feel that they can have a tree in the house without subscribing to the Christian element of the holiday.

It is very common for Jewish children whose families do not have trees to envy Christian friends who do. Some families feel that it is important for children to understand and value the difference between Judaism and Christianity and refuse to have a "Christmas tree" in their home. On the other hand, it is not unusual for a Jewish family simply to have a Christmas tree and call it by that name. The "Hanukkah bush" falls somewhere between these extremes.

A typical family dynamic is described by Edward Cohen[4], in a memoir about Jewish life in 1950s Mississippi:

I recalled the year I had asked my mother for a Christmas tree. It had seemed like a fun and harmless thing.... My mother refused, at first patiently.... We had Hanukkah, a minor military holiday transformed by the combined pressure of thousands of Jewish children over the years into a substitute for Christmas.... But I wanted a tree.

Exasperated finally, she said it would have to be in my room with the door shut because she wouldn't have any Christmas tree in her window. It was characteristic of her that she didn't take the easier approach of some Jewish parents who, without rabbinical sanction, were buying small, squat Christmas trees and renaming them Hanukkah bushes. They would put a Star of David at the top and hang little figures of the Maccabee warriors and a few incongruous Santas for variety. To my mother that was nothing but an agronomical ruse.

The phrase "Hanukkah bush" is not used seriously. It is generally understood to be a thin verbal pretense, a shorthand reminder that "we have a decorated tree for the holiday season but we do not celebrate Christmas."

Peter W. Williams[5] writes:

Some Jews eager to approximate Gentile customs... and with tongue firmly in cheek—add a "Hanukkah bush," or Christmas-tree substitute, and even have visits from "Uncle Max, the Hanukkah man," a clear counterpart to a well-known Christmas figure.

It often has the flavor of a joking apology or excuse, particularly to other Jews, for having been caught celebrating a custom that is agreeable but not quite proper. Thus, we read in a novel[6]:

"Louis was so unorthodox I caught him buying a Christmas tree one night.... Louis tried to fob it off as a Hanukkah bush."
"Did you ream him out?"
"Of course. As we were carrying it home. I was merciless."

Susan Sussman's 1983 children's book[7], There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein, explores the difficulties felt, not only by Jewish families in a predominantly Christian society, but the sometimes sharper tensions between Jewish families that do and do not have holiday trees. In the story, a wise grandfather resolves the situation by taking Robin, the have-not child, to a Christmas party given by his union chapter— a party he helped to organize. Thus, the book draws a distinction between sharing the Christmas holiday (which it approves) and observing it (which it questions). Robin's concluding thought is that maybe her friend "needed a Chanukah bush" because she lacked "friends who shared with you." A television adaptation of the book won an Emmy award in 1998.

A December, 1974 New York Times ad[8] by Saks Fifth Avenue, presumably well-attuned to New York sensibilities, offers an array of holiday merchandise including a "happy bagel" ornament, "painted and preserved with shellac, ready to hang on a Christmas tree, Chanukah bush, or around your neck, 3.50."

In a 1981 contretemps over a Nativity scene in a South Dakota capitol, a side issue involved a Christmas tree which had been decorated with seventeen Stars of David. The stars had been made by students at the Pierre Indian school. Governor William J. Janklow said that the tree was not the "Hanukkah bush" he had jocularly talked of contributing. The stars were redistributed among other Christmas trees in the display, to avoid giving offense to some Jews by implying that the state endorsed Hanukkah bushes.[9]

Obviously a Hanukkah bush would not bear decorations having explicit Christian associations (such as an ornament with a picture of the Magi). However, this is not a conspicuous omission because most U.S. traditional Christmas tree ornaments, such as colored balls and tinsel, have no such associations.

A Hanukkah bush is not to be mistaken with an actual Christmas tree which Russian Jews frequently use when celebrating Novi God, the Russified version of Christmas which was nationalized by the Soviet regime, combined with the celebration of the New Year, and devoid of religious meaning. Russian Jews in America and Israel often use Christmas trees in celebration of Novi God complete with the Russian version of Santa Claus ("Ded Moroz"), yet the celebrations are not signs of assimilation as often thought, but a tradition reflecting the secular Russian Christmas holiday (with the actual Christian Orthodox Christmas celebrated by Russian Christians in the beginning of January).


  1.   Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism; Anita Diamant; 1998, Schocken, ISBN 0-8052-1095-4
  2.   "Rabbis are emphatic and virtually unanimous in their feeling that there is no place for Christmas celebrations within a Jewish home." Anita Diamant, op. cit. But that would seem to be overstating the case, vide Isaacs (2003).
  3.   Ask the Rabbi: The Who, What, When, Where, Why, & How of Being Jewish; Ron Isaacs; 2003; Jossey-Bass; ISBN 0-7879-6784-X
  4.   The Peddler's Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi; Edward Cohen; 2002; Delta; ISBN 0-385-33591-1
  5.   America's Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century; Peter W. Williams; 2001; University of Illinois Press; ISBN 0-252-06682-0
  6.   Mallory's Oracle, Carol O'Connell, 1995, Jove, ISBN 0-515-11647-5
  7.   There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein; Susan Sussman; illus. Charles Robinson; 1983; Albert Whitman & Company; ISBN 0-8075-7862-2; 48 pp, reading level age 4-8
  8.   The New York Times, December 6, 1974, p. 23
  9.   "Nativity Scene in Capitol Stirs South Dakota Rights Protest," The New York Times December 1, 1981, p. A17

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Christmas Guide, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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