By Jill Brooke
When I married my husband, Gary, part of his tradition was celebrating Hanukkah.
Since he is the most loving, wonderful guy, and more religious than I am, out went the two-foot-high Santa Claus centerpiece that was my go-to for years. In came an assortment of Hanukkah replacements that never felt quite as festive.
A menorah on a cake plate surrounded by cottony snow?
A floral arrangement made of blue and white flowers? It clashed with my red and green dining room decor, which was a natural for Christmas – if we celebrated it.
Using silver and white place settings with blue touches on pine flora to convey a sense of holiness and light?
As I matured in our marriage and decorating skills, I did find fun alternatives that not only garnered magazine stories but created approval and appreciation from his family members.
Considering other people’s feelings and traditions is in the spirit of the holidays. Furthermore, although 7 out of 10 couples marry someone of their own faith, traditions may differ. Embracing the traditions of those you care about, shelving some traditions that don’t work for your family and creating new ones for you both as a couple is a testament to love and respect – and most importantly – togetherness.
Seeing the light is what this holiday is about. When the Greeks were trying to assimilate the Jews by forbidding the Torah or practice of the Sabbath, a group of Jews defied them in what is known as the Maccabean Revolt.
The Israelites only had a day of oil for light but it miraculously lasted eight days to ensure victory. Therefore, create lots of candles in varying sizes all along the table. Consider using crystal and glass since it twinkles so beautifully. You can drape flowers in between the glass and crystal since it reflects so well. Discuss how seeing the light is a metaphor for so much in life.
I also have used a pie stand as a prop as seen above as a platform for the menorah and decorated it for a more dramatic effect. Also, remember to follow the rule that you have one bigger centerpiece in the middle and then smaller ones bookending it. I use the menorah as the centerpiece and then have two smaller flower arrangements on either side. Let the eye dance with varying heights of pretty things to look at.
The colors for Chanukah traditionally are blue and white, the colors of the flag of Israel. Of course, the question then is why blue? It’s the color the Israelites were told to dye the thread (tekhelet) on the knotted fringes of their prayer shawls made with ink from a sea snail. The blue is a little deeper than the classic blue Pantone selected as its color for 2020. You can find many ways to create holiday centerpieces using these colors that won’t clash with your decor.
Here are some examples from master florists such as Gotham Florists, Floral Petals of Westchester – the first three – and then Flourish Bespoke. What you will see is that it doesn’t have to be the primary color in your decor. Or it can be.
Many of the ornaments you will find at Pier 1 and Pottery Barn are not religious. Find neutral ones to decorate your table around a menorah or floral arrangement. A baby picture of your kids can be turned into an ornament. A token souvenir from family trips. Snowmen, dogs, even a Torah scroll I found were considered kosher in my household. Whether you use a runner for your table or substitute pine or cottony snow, decorating with ornaments ups the dramatic effect and makes it more festive. I also use ribbon to create decor.
For years, I agonized over the blue until I learned that what’s important is the lighting of the menorah. It isn’t mandatory to have blue be the primary color. Whew. That helped a lot. However, many ornaments for Hanukkah are automatically blue. I have spray painted stars and dreidels gold to match my personal decor. You can do the same. Each year I take them out and these ornaments are now part of our dinner tradition. One year Crate & Barrel made gorgeous red and green dreidels that I scooped up and treasure as pieces of art. I wonder if some designers felt my pain and crafted these for that one year. I haven’t seen them since. But that’s the fun of collecting for the holiday. It’s a scavenger hunt that builds memories. You can also change napkins, plates, glasses and even add pine trees to alter the table setting but keep it traditional.
Juniper has a blue tone, so add it to floral arrangements as well use it for decorating the table. Baby’s breath can also be added the same way and is particularly lovely tucked into napkins. I’ve also used it as a base for plants. Put the baby’s breath around it instead of moss. Have plenty on hand to add that extra flourish to your holiday table.
There is an on-going debate about the issue of a Hanukkah Bush, which we can discuss for one moment. Especially since the source of that term originated in my house. Yes, this is true.
We live in a colonial house from the 1790’s that belonged to both Gov. DeWitt Clinton and Gertrude Berg, the actress and pioneer of classic sitcom radio and the TV show “The Goldbergs,” which inspired “I Love Lucy.” In fact, there was a movie about Berg as one of the most famous women people didn’t know.
Berg, who was an avid gardener, often did many of her shows from the house. (We still have her greenhouse).
Years ago, her grandchildren knocked on our door to see the house that triggered such wonderful childhood memories for them and shared this story. Actor Milton Berle was visiting around Christmas and lamented with her on the show how Jewish people love to decorate but it’s very difficult with just a menorah. The two hatched an idea of creating a Hanukkah bush with no religious items but would be in the house to enjoy the scents of nature and celebrating family togetherness.
Armed with that story, my husband agreed to let me decorate a tree which was, of course, called our Chanukah Bush.
Honoring his reservations, I did decorate in such a way that it was religious – with dreidels and Jewish stars along with other items. As my brother-in-law Brian remarked, “Ralph Lauren couldn’t have made a better tree.” Although Orthodox rabbis are resistant to these celebrations – not because of a link to Christianity but to its roots of pagan deity – many secular Jewish people have embraced this tradition. Whatever your comfort zone, there are many options to choose from.
Hopefully, these ideas will inspire you to create your own traditions to create frivolity, joy, reflection, appreciation as well as festive fun for your friends and family. Happy Holidays.
Jill Brooke is a former CNN correspondent, Post columnist and editor-in-chief of Avenue and Travel Savvy magazine. She is an author and the editorial director of FPD.