Hanukkah – to light or not to light?

blue lights.jpgNo, I’m not questioning whether or not to light one, or several, menorahs tonight. That’s the essence, after all, of the mitzvah of pirsumei nissa, publicizing the miracle of the holiday. But today, as I prepare for the first night of Chaukah – going shopping for potatoes and plenty of oil, dragging the box of menorahs and dreidls out of the basement, and wrapping the first night’s presents – I’m facing a dilemma.

We have a few sets of sukkah lights that the rest of the world (including the manufacturer) would call Christmas lights.  A chain of tiny blue bulbs would make a lovely frame for our kitchen window, where we proudly display our menorahs. It would make our home feel more festive and draw attention to our window, arguably adding to our fulfillment of the mitzvah of pirsumei nissa. On the other hand, they look a lot like Christmas decorations, and although my husband was raised Catholic, we do not observe Christmas in our home in any way, shape or form. 
I wonder if I’m more conflicted about hanging these lights because of our interfaith marriage. Perhaps I’m concerned that rather than advertising the miracle of Chanukah, my window will be inadvertently advertising an amalgam of two very different holidays. And while a mixture of traditions might work for some, it’s not the way we do things here at homeshuling.
Any opinions or advice? I’ve got about 10 hours to decide. And while you are at it, what do you think about an inflatable Red Rabbi? (Har har.)
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Sarah Buttenwieser

posted December 1, 2010 at 7:18 am

If it makes you happy to add the lights, add ’em. You are your own Jew, after all!

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Megan Zinn

posted December 1, 2010 at 7:44 am

I’ve always felt we should take back the light, so to speak. Hannukah is the Festival of Lights, after all, and predates Christmas, so why should Christmas get custody of sparkly lights. These winter holidays are all about bringing light into the darkest time of the year, so I say Yes, hang those blue lights. I’ll try to pull out ours, too.

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posted December 1, 2010 at 7:48 am

Mike and I were having a long discussion about this last night- not about putting up lights per se, but how to balance kids growing up with two non-religious parents of different faiths who enjoy traditions on the opposite ends of the secular spectrum. Having a Catholic mom and being converted at birth, I was always very sensitive to talking about what traditions I observed at home and with our extended family. I was very aware of being “the Jewish kid that celebrated Christmas.” Even though my mom kept it out of our house to prevent confusion, we did travel north to celebrate with her family every year- something (i.e. more presents) I really enjoyed. That being said, who cares if other people think it looks like you’re celebrating Christmas? What Mike and I concluded is that our family gets to decide what our family traditions will be and what they look like. If putting up the lights gets your girls (and you) excited about Chanukah and is part of their tradition each year, then the heck with what random passers by think! But, since you sound uneasy about it, that may mean you already know what you want to do, which is nixing the lights. In which case, it looks like you already have plenty of other traditions that your girls can be involved in. Also, is the issue only because Chanukah and Christmas are so close together? You didn’t have a moral dilemma about using Christmas lights on Sukkot, so is there a difference in the long run? Or is it because the sukkah was in your back yard?

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posted December 1, 2010 at 9:17 am

Great post! I struggle at this time of year with decorations. My parents were an interfaith couple not unlike you and your husband. But we always had “Christmas stuff” in our house (a tree and stockings; no Jesus). But it was my mom (not my non-praticing Lutheran dad) who “did Christmas”. As it turns out, my Jewish grandparents put up a tree for my mom and her siblings when THEY were growing up. My grandparents have both passed away, so I’ll never know why they did that. But they started a whole big thing. My mom and her siblings all followed suit and brought their kids up with Christmas. (Do we see a cycle here?) I think they did it to try to make us feel “normal” or like the other kids, but it just made me feel like a freak! Out of the 11 grandkids, only 3 really identify as “Jewish”. The other kids are either “nothing” or have fully converted to Christianity. I remember – as a kid – one of my cousins saying, “I don’t care what religion my future husband is or how we raise the kids, but I HAVE to have a Christmas tree in the house!” I. Was. Appalled.
My mom decided – when I was 17 – that we weren’t doing Christmas anymore. At the time, I was angry. She was taking away something beautiful that I’d had for 17 years. But now I’m glad she did it. Still, this time of year is hard for me. I love looking at the lights and hearing the music, but I’m careful with what we do in our home. I happen to put one string of (blue) lights up on our staircase. Please note that I also do this for Halloween (purple or orange lights). My husband says I’m putting up “orange Christmas lights for Halloween” (or “blue Christmas lights for Hanukkah”). But I fail to see how one holiday can own a string of lights! I used to have some of those cute tiki-type lights from Pier One year-round in my apartment when I was single. I just love the glow of lights. (Again, my husband thinks it’s some latent need for the Christmas that was taken from me 17 years ago. He could be on to something… or I could just like lights!)
To make a long story short (too late!), I think it’s possible that you’re being over-sensitive because of the interfaith thing. I think it’s fine to put up the lights around your window to frame your hanukkiah(s). But just remember that everything you do, your kids will remember and most-likely carry on into their homes. That’s how I make my decisions now. I ask myself, “Would I be upset if this went on in my kids’ homes when they’re grown up?”

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posted December 1, 2010 at 11:01 am

Is there a way to hang the lights, and then turn them on only while you have Hanukkah candles burning, and turn the lights out when the candles are done? That way they are an attention-getter when there are very visible Jewish symbols in the window, and don’t look like Christmas decorations the rest of the time.

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posted December 1, 2010 at 11:20 am

i say that if your primary worry is marit ayin (morris ayin would be a lovely orthodox roller derby ref name, by the way) — how it would look to outsiders — let it go. YOU know they’re not xmas lights. enjoy them! and i like megan’s notion of taking back the light. (and you know what, i think BLUE lights are less goyish looking than white or red ones anyway.)
if you think the KIDS would see it as a concession to xmas, that’s a diff story. but you can talk them thru that — i always think discussing your own moral dilemmas with your children is an excellent opportunity for a teachable moment.

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posted December 1, 2010 at 11:58 am

Morris Ayin…how I wish I had thought of that Roller Derby name.

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Brent Brooks

posted December 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I like the red inflatable rabbi idea… If you can fashion some sort of Blue kippah and some white peyos… Would LOVE to see a photo of the finished product!
Chag sameach!

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posted December 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I agree with Megan. Why are Christmas lights “Christmas” lights? I would love to have icicle lights up all through the winter, just because it’s so dark so early. So I say go for it!

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posted December 1, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I think all the wise commenters are, well, wise and we’ve certainly adopted many cultural elements of the majority society over the centuries (greenery for Shavuot, anyone?). That being said, personally I could never put up lights. Visceral echh reaction. I remember moving from one part of the States to another and going from our house as the only dark one to most of our neighborhood dark and just feeling not so alone. (We also don’t have string lights in our sukkah, we use a lamp instead.)

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posted December 2, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Growing up we always wanted a Hanukkah bush. Dad said no. We did go to the local dairy for egg hunts (usually had to wait to eat the chocolate eggs until after Passover). Enjoyed being invited to celebrate X-Mas with friends. A bit of a mixed message some would say but it worked for us. I had an interfaith marriage and so loved decorating the tree (which went next to the menorah) and driving to look at holiday lights. My boys (now in their 20’s) celebrate both holidays but don’t do decorations. My mom has a string of blue lights with plastic dreidels on it that she puts up each year, along with blue garland. I have twinkle lights in my bedroom that I use for a night light for my 3 yr old granddaughter and occasionally put on just because for me. I believe that what is important is the celebration of the holiday, whats in your heart and not as much how you do what you do.

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posted December 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I just found your site, actually my husband found it and forwarded it to me. Its funny how we always struggle with the lights and yet we are the Festival of Lights. We have some Hanukkah lights inside the house and some electric menorahs in the windows. We each have our own menorah to light, we let the kids pick out their own at a not too local Judaica store. I just heard a rabbi say the other night that we may not have all of the flash and sparkle of xmas but a little light dispells the darkness. We do have some Hanukkah lights up but nothing beats the glow of our 6 menorahs around the table with singing and latkes.

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Matt Zvi

posted December 7, 2010 at 10:12 pm

I know that in Northampton (off Washington St.?) there is a house that takes lights and hangs them on a trellis in the shape of a giant star of david. I always thought that was pretty bad ass of them.
The red rabbi looks like the wandering Jew of medieval propaganda.

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Wow! This blog lookѕ еxactly lіe mу old one!
It’s on a totally different subjеct but it has pretty much the same layout and
design. Superb choice of colors!

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