Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Too bad we don't celebrate it.

I think Hanukkah needs a new marketing campaign.

When you tell your kids they are getting eight presents--from you and their father alone, not to mention whatever gift-wrapped goodies the grandparents, aunts and uncles send--and they still pine for twinkle lights and Santa's lap, you know whoever's in charge of promoting our second-fiddle Jewish holiday needs to get reassigned to a smaller, less important campaign. (Like Pesach, perhaps, or Sukkot.) We need to put some Mad Men ad men in charge.

I know part of the problem is the material they're working with. There's just no way Hanukkah can compete with the merriment and beauty of Christmas. They have jolly Saint Nick and the reindeer. We, on the other hand, have no mascot at all. They have the miracle of the baby Jesus...we have the miracle of candles that will burn for eight straight nights, ladies and gentleman, without needing to be relit! (So powerful you won't waste matches. This exclusive TV offer available in three installments of $79.99; act now and we'll throw in this handy dandy wrench for free!) They have soft, buttery cookies and creamy, spiked drinks. We have oily oversized Tater Tots and flat chocolate gelt coins. It's an uphill battle for even the most gifted, creative marketing team, for certain.

Don't get me wrong--Hanukkah's image has definitely been shined up a bit since I was a kid. My version of Hanukkah, circa 1986, involved trudging behind my parents in my moon boots through the King of Prussia Mall on a December weekend, gazing with a mixture of cynicsm and envy at the velvet bows draped from the ceilings to the escalators; green and gold and silver and red glittery confections hanging like dangle-earrings from a towering, lush green Christmas tree.

Hanukkah shopping was a one-day, one-gift-per-recipient endeavor for us, and it wasn't particularly different from any other weekend trip to the mall, which we visited at least twice a month. It began with my dad paying his respects to Brooks Brothers, emerging with a new tie (he'd be sure to comment that all the other ones on display were overpriced and sold under a no-name label to Marshall's and TJ Maxx.) My mom was less into the whole ritual, but usually would end up with some new (boring) household good from the Macy's Cellar. Then it would be our turn. "Oh, by the way, Hanukkah is next week," they might mention in passing. "What do you want?"

Another Barbie for me, another Transformer for my brother Casey. Freshly crinkling in a plastic bag from KB Toys, it was all ours. Happy Hanukkah.

Now I don't mean to cry poor little me. Let me just make it clear--again--that this was how we spent nearly every weekend, whether it was December 24 or October 24 or February 12 or April 3. So I had dozens of Barbie dolls, and Casey had dozens of Transformers; my mother's linen closet was our very own Linens 'n Things, and my father, twenty or so years later, actually had an entire closet built to support his tie collection, which currently numbers in the thousands. No one was lacking for material goods in my family.

And neither are my children. Jacob and Rebecca receive at least one Star-of-David-paper-wrapped surprise on each night of the Festival of Lights. This year, by the glow of the menorah candles, they will be raking in baby dolls and puzzles and books and a scooter and a tricycle and a guitar and every single Disney Princess toy ever made. (Unlike my parents, Barry and I don't buy them toys at the mall every weekend, so we have a lot of territory to make up.)

As much as this sounds like a materialistic orgasm of consumerism, it won't just be about the ample piles of presents. We've also tried to bring more ritual and joy to Hanukkah, by saying the Hebrew prayers as we light the menorah, cooking all the traditional oily foods and explaining their symbolic significance, having Hanukkah parties, attending candle lighting ceremonies and partaking in festive games of competitive dreidel spinning and Hanukkah bingo.

Despite this, my kids still gaze wistfully at the four-foot-high candy canes impaled into our neighbor's front lawn as if they could eat them up whole, reminding me of how I used to stare at the mall ornaments. Jacob said to me recently, "I wish we could have Christmas because if you have Christmas you get Santa Claus and reindeer and a big Christmas tree."

I reminded him then that while all of his friends in kindergarten would have just one day of opening presents, he'd be opening gifts for more than a week; I talked up the potato latkes, gelt, the lighting of the candles, how super-cool and strong the Macabees were to win their battle and keep our ancestors alive. "They won!" I said to him excitedly. "They were so strong and so smart! And God kept the candles burning for more than a week. It was a miracle."

"How long to candles usually stay lit?"

"Maybe a few hours, at the most! Eight days is a super-long time."


Jacob then asked me if we weren't "allowed" to have a Santa Claus. I struggled for how to reply. I remembered having a similar discussion with my very cynical parents when I was in kindergarten. They'd mocked my Christian school friends for believing in a "fat man in a silly red suit" who didn't exist; I would watch made-for-television movies where Santa turned out to be real after all, and wonder if they'd been wrong to write him off as a fraud.

"You can sit on Santa's lap and watch movies and eat Christmas cookies," I conceded to my son. "But it's not our holiday. We can have fun, but we have our own traditions."

"Can we have a Christmas tree?" Jacob asked.

"No, because Christmas isn't our holiday. We have a menorah."


"Did I mention that you get to open at least one present every single night?"

"Yes, Mommy."

What I couldn't explain to Jacob, what I guess I am still coming to terms with myself, is sometimes, you can't compete. And you shouldn't try to. Being Jewish isn't about beating our Christian friends at the game of holiday cheer. We're defined by what we are as a people more than we're defined by the fact that we're "other;" that we're not Christian. And this is why I'm not a big fan of the Hanukkah bush (a sickly-thin pale white synthetic plant cowering in the presence of those great piney beasts) or asking Barry to pretend he's Hanukkah Harry.

If anything, our stories of latkes instead of cookies--and, in the spring, matzoh meal cookies instead of chocolate bunnies--are partially what binds us Members of the Tribe close together. When you're a Jew and you meet another Jew at a wedding or on a cruise or an airport, after you get done with "Jewish geography" ("so your second cousin's boyfriend went to summer camp with my best friend's neighbor's orthodontist's daughter? What a small world!") these tales of having our noses pressed against the window pane of the Christian celebrations are what often begin new friendships. It's what begins them, but from there, it's not what defines them; our closeness as a community, how girlfriends can love each other like sisters and guy friends can bond together like brothers is the gooey good stuff that we cynics might not admit in glittery Hallmark cards, but treasure deeply.

I can't really explain all this to Jacob right now. But I have faith that one day, he'll make some great friends who will smile wistfully at his stories of how his mom explained to him when he was a kid that, "Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Too bad we don't celebrate it." They'll surely relate, and have some war stories of their own.

Unless, of course, some marketing genius finds a better way to spin Hanukkah. Which I wouldn't rule out. With so many Jews in the advertising industry, there may be hope for Hanukkah Harry yet.


Cammie said...

yeah, at my house since Pierce has been learing about other holiday traditions at school he wants to have presents for 8 days. Maybe we can swap for a year.

Megan said...

Aww, sounds a bit difficult to explain to him, but I think you're doing a great job!!

There's an award for you on my blog. =)

Wendy said...

I hereby nominate you as the brilliant ambassador of Chanukah marketing!!

Erin said...

I love this post Jorie. I think I've shown it to at least 10 people so far. You need to move here. We weren't allowed to sing Christmas songs but we could sing "Dreidle, Dreidle, Dreidle". LOL!

Sarah said...

Great post! I'm sure it is difficult to explain.