The Hanukkah bush is a bone of contention between those Jews who see it, especially in it is "menorah look-alike" manifestations, as a distinctly Jewish plant badge; and those Jews who regard it as an assimilationist variation of a Christmas tree — especially when it is indistinguishable from the latter. The latter group are (understandably) concerned about Jews who appear to inch their way away from Jewish and into Christian theological traditions. Ironically, there is nothing Christian about Christmas trees, except the tenuous association of the pre-Christian winter festival tradition with the modern holiday — that, in the United States, was made a legal holiday before most Protestant Americans observed it as a religious holiday.
The Hanukkah bush is all but unknown outside Canada and the United States, where it is apparently most typically displayed by Ashkenazi Jews from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions. Some Conservative Jews may also display it, but it would be an extremely unusual sight in an Orthodox home.
As celebrated in North America, Hanukkah often syncretizes some of the secular 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." Ironically, there is nothing Christian about Christmas trees, except the tenuous association of the pre-Christian winter festival tradition with the modern holiday — which, in the United States, was made a secular legal holiday before most Protestant Americans observed it as a religious holiday. The celebration of Christmas was one of the first casualties of the Protestant Reformation, to the extent that Christmas celebration of any type, beyond a church service, was a criminal offence in colonial Massachusetts; and Christmas was an ordinary working day in Scotland until 1967, when the Church of Scotland (which is Presbyterian) finally withdrew its objections to the holiday. A few Protestant denominations (notably, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Christ) still decline to observe Christmas, either as a religious or a secular holiday.
Hanukkah bushes are generally discouraged today by most rabbis, but some Reform, Reconstructionist and more liberal Conservative rabbis do not object, even to Christmas trees. In answer to the question "Is it OK for a Jewish family to have a Christmas tree," Rabbi Ron Isaacs 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.
In a 1959 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, actress Gertrude Berg described her father's substitution of a "Chanukah bush" in place of a Christmas tree.
Another family's dynamic is described by Edward Cohen, 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 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:
Susan Sussman's 1983 children's book, 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 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.
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 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 holiday (with the actual Christian Orthodox Christmas celebrated by Russian Christians in the beginning of January).