There are many things about Christmas that perplex me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love the Christmas season. And I primarily love this most wonderful time of the year because I don’t celebrate Christmas.
I have no halls to deck, no lights to hang, no tidings to send. Somehow, though, as everyone else is decking and lighting and sending their tidings, it is impossible to avoid being swept up in a tornado of good cheer—that is, of course, if you can tune out the commercialization of every possible facet of the celebration. For a few weeks, the world feels like a giving, thankful, bright, happy place, and I love basking in its glow. Despite the shopping, cooking, decorating madness, as an outsider, it feels like people are trying to help other people.
December always brings the Hanukkah/Christmas cage match. Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas, and I never pretend otherwise. It is not the holiest of days, nor the apex of spiritual celebrations. I have always enjoyed the fact that Hanukkah is a minor festival, and ever since I was small, I felt completely satisfied with spending a week lighting candles, singing blessings, giving gifts, frying latkes, and reminding ourselves about another religious miracle.
But each year as my kids grow older, I face new questions and confusion about holidays and our religious identity. Now that my oldest is in public school, I am getting an earful about Christmas traditions of her friends. She’s already complained that she doesn’t hear “Hannukah music on the radio” and that more people celebrate Christmas at school. Their questions force me to think about the religious tenets that matter to me and compel me to make meaning for my children, to help them make sense of the world that is full of lights and trees and especially elves.
I know the Elf on a Shelf is a relatively new Christmas tradition for some, and last year more than any other year on social media, I could not escape photo after photo of these elves on shelves. I attribute the uptick to a confluence a few factors including the aging of my friends’ kids and the availability of social media for sharing everyday life. The elves hang from the chandelier, drink the family’s juice, play in the toy box, leaving reminders to the children that they are under a watchful eye. They create mischief and children must follow several important rules so as not to wreck Christmas magic (and ultimately, their Santa spoils, right?).
I know this relatively new tradition is supposed to be fun for children, but it seems to cause a fair amount stress for parents, working to create this Christmas magic. When I confessed my confusion (and really my mild disapproval) for the Elf on a Shelf on Facebook last year, I faced my virtual and actual friends who quickly schooled me on the enthusiasm for (and fear of) their family’s elf. Another friend pointed me towards an even newer Christmas tradition developed in opposition to the Elf on the Shelf called “Kindness Elves.” These hipster elves also move around your house but instead of asking you to behave for presents, they leave little notes encouraging children to practice acts of kindness like delivering toys to a local homeless shelter or baking cookies for a neighbor.
All of these new, manufactured traditions are commodification in the name of good cheer. I am still unclear why we can’t simply expect good behavior from our children or devote our time to helping others without the watchful eye of a stuffed toy. But, it’s not my holiday tradition.
That is, until someone went out and created the Mensch on a Bench.
If I wasn’t too fond of the Elf on a Shelf, I kept it to myself. In fact, this year, I’m even seeing a little Elf backlash, so I know I’m not the only person who finds the tradition onerous. But this Mensch on a Bench product infuriates me.
The Mensch on a Bench is the brain child of an entrepreneur who created the story of the mensch for his sons to overcome his own “elf envy.” He claims that his product will add “more funakkah in your Hanukkah.”
My Hanukkah is just fine.
And elf envy is not a thing. It simply cannot be a thing because Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas.
At first, I thought I would give the product the benefit of the doubt and I perused the website with an open mind—or as open a mind as I could muster–but I did not even make it through the PR reel. It’s so clearly a commercialized ripoff of the Elf “tradition” that I had to stop listening to TV hosts awkwardly “kvell” over this nonsense. Though the Mensch backstory is grounded in some of the traditional story of the holiday–Moshe the Mensch promised Judah Maccabee that he would watch over the menorah in the old temple and now he’ll watch over your menorah (and subsequently your children’s behavior) while you sleep–the doll comes with a list of rules that sound eerily the same as the list for the Elf on a Shelf.
Neal Hoffman, the brains behind this product, claim that it is “widely accepted in the Jewish community.” Last year, Hoffman manufactured 1,000 dolls and sold out, so this year he has the shelves of major retailers like Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond stocked with mensches. As if my holiday was not already misunderstood enough, now this absurd little man is becoming its emissary? Critics of the mensch rightfully recognize that this little, plush man represents an extremely limited view of who modern Jews are or how modern families are constructed. In my local Jewish community, I have not found a critical mass, not found one person who thinks this product is a good idea. I am appalled that anyone would spend money on this product that so transparently rips off another commercialized holiday “tradition.” (Note: I originally typed that last four words of the previous sentence in shouty-caps but self-edited because I am a lady.)
Maybe if the Mensch on a bench was modeled after an age-old Christmas tradition like some new “Hanukkah activities” I would not take such offense. I am still not crazy about the Manischewitz Chanukah house modeled after the gingerbread house or the “Hannukah bush” knocked off from the Christmas tree. These two traditions, while still slightly strange (and a little appalling), are at least grounded on old, cultural celebrations of a holy day.
This Mensch business is like a bad copy of a bad tradition.
This Mensch on a Bench manufactured nonsense tradition does not solve the problem I’m going through: how to teach my daughter to be proud of her religious faith when she is in the minority. Our Hanukkah traditions are grounded in generations of stories and suffering, and honoring those traditions is what makes us mensches. I want my daughter to know she comes from somewhere, that the people who came before her, made it possible for her to have Hanukkah, this little celebration of miracles. The Mensch puts no more “funakkah” in my holiday; in fact, it creates more stress just like the elf on a shelf does for lots of Christians.
A mensch is a person of integrity and honor.
All I could hope for in life is for my children to be looked upon as little mensches. Instead of intimidating my children into being mensches by posing some creepy doll around my house, I’ll spend my holiday season creating actual traditions with them. I’ll ask them to fry latkes, we’ll try our hand at making donuts, we’ll play dreidel, exchange gifts with our cousins, spend time at our temple and JCC, and write notes of thanks to their teachers and grandparents. We’ll keep it simple, because simplicity leaves room for honest chatter, for quality family time, and for focusing on the things that matter to us.
And most importantly, we’ll inspire them to be mensches because acts of kindness, integrity and honor are not only for eight days of obligation in December.
The most mensch-y of mensches is a mensch even when–nay, especially when–no one is watching.