Ho, Ho, Ho, It’s Chanukah

About six years ago, Eve Berger's then-toddler daughter wanted to have colored lights on the outside of her house for the December holiday season, just like her neighbors. To indulge her daughter's request, Berger decided that she would string blue and white Christmas lights in the shape of a Magen David, and hang the symbol next to her front door. But one barrier stood in her way.

"My mother-in-law went nuts," said Berger. "She went out and bought me a pre-made light-up sign that said 'Happy Chanukah,' and told me to hang that in my window."

With her mother-in-law appeased and her daughter content with the sign, Berger sought other ways to decorate her Doylestown home for the Chanukah season. That work has come to fruition with her current accoutrements: She winds a string with light-up dreidels in a hallway, displays menorahs and Chanukah-themed candles throughout her house, and uses a dish towel dripping with Jewish symbols.

"I want the holiday to be as appealing to my kids as possible," said Berger. "It helps them learn about the holiday. There's nothing wrong with that."

Berger may have almost crossed the line, at least according to her mother-in-law, but she's not alone in trying to make the Jewish miracle of lights festive. In fact, many retailers remark that within the last decade, more and more products have been produced that allow Jews to follow their Christian neighbors and jump on the spiritual bandwagon, albeit with all things Chanukah.

"Ten years ago, we may have had 30 patterns for Christmas, and only two or three for Chanukah," said Barry Schwartz, owner of S.G.S. Paper Company, a party-supply store in Wyncote. "Jews felt slighted that no one was trying to provide for them, but very few companies wanted to make the commitment. Now they all do it."

Schwartz said his store offers about eight patterns of paper products for Chanukah – not up to the nearly three dozen for Christmas, but still a 400 percent increase from 10 years ago – and lots of other favors, toys and decorations.

Consumers have apparently noticed the difference.

"When I was younger, my Chanukah party certainly wasn't with themed dishes and napkins," said Anne Fassler of Meadowbrook, who decorates her house with her kids' art projects and the Chanukah dishes, tablecloth and cookie-cutters that she purchased last year. "Every year, we just had gold gelt."

But this year, for instance, a prominent display in Bed, Bath & Beyond in Wynnewood is replete with Chanukah dish towels, tablecloths, serving dishes, window decorations, paper party goods, sweets, menorahs, candles and various other items. The selection represents significantly more merchandise than the store offered in the past, said company spokeswoman Bari Fagen.

In 1995, Hallmark started the Tree of Life brand, a division specifically geared to the Jewish consumer.

This year, the brand prints 112 Chanukah cards, in addition to gift wrap, ribbons and bows, dreidels, even salt-and-pepper shakers.

Analysts can't exactly pinpoint what catalyst caused the Chanukah merchandising bonanza, but evidence seems to indicate there was a profit to be made from this market.

According to Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, on average consumers will spend $738 this holiday season, of which $40.86 will be used for decorations, and $28.22 for greeting cards and postage.

"Retailers are more aware of all of the holidays," stated Krugman. "They understand they have a diverse audience that is looking to spend money, so they try to satisfy everyone's needs."

This year especially, Jews are more likely to get caught up in the holiday frenzy because of when the 25 of Kislev – or the first night of Chanukah – falls: on Dec. 25, a first since 1959. Last year, for instance, the last night was observed by mid-December, so Jews were done their celebrating – and decorating and cooking and shopping – before their Christian neighbors tore open their cartons of egg nog.

The Fight Against Materialism
But while businesses and retailers cash in on the season, some argue that commercializing Chanukah takes away from the true spirit of the eight-day celebration.

Ironically, notes Rabbi Avi Shafran, public-affairs director at Agudath Israel of America, the essence of the holiday is celebrating the victory of the Jewish people, who were devoted to one God and their Torah study, over a Greco-Syrian culture that valued scientific discoveries, cultural accomplishments and idols.

Materialism, said Shafran, is actually what the Jews of 2,200 years ago were fighting against.

Telling others about the miracle that occurred at the Temple – after the Jews regained possession of the site, one small vial of oil lit its menorah for eight days – and lighting the menorah, explained Shafran, is what the holiday should be about.

"If the rabbis wanted us to celebrate with dish towels and linens, they would have said so," noted Shafran. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that [the merchandise] is an overflow from the larger culture."

Even so, added Beth Wenger, director of the Jewish-studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, doing up the holiday isn't necessarily a good or bad thing.

"It's a sign of the comfort of Jews in expressing their ethnicity and religion," she said. "It's elevating a minor holiday, but with Christmas all around, Jewish parents have something with Jewish content that their children can also celebrate. Is that a misrepresentation of what the holiday is? Yes it is, but it is also an expression of Jewish identity."

Rabbi Yossi Kaplan of Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County: Jewish Center sees the mainstreaming of Chanukah not as a de facto response to Christmas, but rather as a positive resurgence of otherwise non-observant Jews being in touch with their religion.

The real problem with all the holiday merchandise, said Kaplan, exists not for the Jews, but for those who observe Christmas.

"They have something to question because their major holiday is completely commercialized," said Kaplan, echoing Wenger's sentiment that Chanukah is really just a minor holiday on the Jewish calender. "If people were decorating for Rosh Hashanah, that may be a problem, but not Chanukah."

Doing up Chanukah, though, can possibly come at a price – and a hefty financial one at that. At the Wegmans supermarket in Downingtown, for instance, all three $1,000 hand-carved menorahs were sold by mid-month, said Andrew Lindner, merchandise manager for the store. He estimates that by about that time, about 50 percent of their Chanukah merchandise – including banners, menorahs, dreidels and paper products – had been sold.

But whether it's the $1,500 Steuben menorah at Neiman Marcus or the ceramic Chanukah mugs available at the Dollar Tree, there's no doubt these days that something exists for everyone looking to be festive – and at every price range.

"Nowadays, you can buy into it as much as you want," said Fassler. "It will only take away from the holiday if you let it." u



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