Photo by Renee Comet for FT&V.
It’s a Festival of Light … So Let’s Light(en) Up!
Google “Hanukkah Decorations” and you’ll come up with only a slightly less lame selection of foil Stars of David and plastic dreidels than you’ll find in stashed sadly in a back corner of your local pharmacy.
I don’t say this resentfully. Jews tend to be ambivalent about their trumped up competitor to Christmas. We don’t traditionally decorate for it. And while Jewish parents don’t like their children to feel excluded from the holiday season, they don’t know how to make them feel included without compromising their Jewish identity.
I’ve long shed my inhibitions about decorating, however. My (modern) Orthodox rabbi signed off on this decision. No less an authority than the Talmud urges Jews to publicly celebrate the holiday. So why sit in the dark while the goys have all the fun?
Decorating for the season doesn’t mean having to ape Christmas. In fact as a Jew you are liberated from doing so. There are so many creative ways to light up your home for Hanukkah without defaulting to a “Hanukkah Bush.” For FT&V’s first Hanukkah, I chose a theme based on the Seven Species — the major food groups that Jews consumed in Biblical times, and which are now infused with special holiness and meaning: “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey.” (Deut. 8:8). This seemed an especially relevant theme to FT&V since our name echoes this very passage. My color scheme would of course be blue and silver, which is to Hanukkah as red and green is to Christmas.
Thus I set forth to hunt and gather. I found my local plant stores already festooned with Christmas lights and tchotchkes, mixed up with Thanksgiving decorations, which was perfect. You’d be surprised how many Christian ornaments can easily be converted to Jewish purposes. On the Thanksgiving side of the stores I found tall decorative bundles of cedar branches. Cedar is a tree, like pine, that we tend to associate with Christmas. It’s important to remember that there’s nothing intrinsically Christian about greenery — the custom of decorating with evergreen boughs is originally Druidic. Cedar and pine are also native species to Israel. On the Christmas side of the store, I found glittering bunches of silver grapes, sparkly vines, and ornaments in the shapes of dill pickles, wine bottles, and even bagels. These would be fun to tie on to napkins or nestle in centerpieces. Bountiful bouquets of blue hydrangeas caught my eye, so I scooped up a few of those, along with some packages of small silver balls. Artificial birch branches and a string of lights resembling twigs could be used for something, I reckoned.
From there I headed to Crate & Barrel — one of the few large retailing chains that has stepped up its Hanukkah game. The main website features its own Hanukkah drop down menu (rather than lumping it in with “Holiday” aka “Mostly-Christmas-with-a-few-Jewish-things-thrown-in”). A buyer at C&B has clearly gone the distance to curate a beautiful line of products, including china, linens, decorations and even gift wrap andcards. I loved the minimalist white dreidel-shaped plates, antiqued silver Star of David candle holders, and the glittery starburst balls in blue and silver.
By this time my car was overflowing with sparkly goods, like a Barbie vehicle. I still didn’t feel I had enough greenery so I returned to the plant store and bought sprigs of myrtle, eucalyptus and sumac (myrtle is a protected species in Israel; the other two are common there. Sumac, of course, gets ground into spice.)
But now, what to do with all of this? My own home is under renovation, so my friend and architect Richard Williams offered to let me use his stylish, renovated Mid-Century house as a stage set. I poured myself a glass of wine and began to brainstorm.
Start With the Flowers…
Blue and white hydrangeas are glammed up with silver ball ornaments in the glass vases. The side table is sprinkled with the blue and silver starburst ornaments, silver pinecones, and antiqued silver Star of David candleholders, all from Crate & Barrel. Photo by Renee Comet for FT&V.
Photos by Renee Comet for FT&V.
Now for the Decor!
If all the materials you’ve collected are consistent in style and color, it’s hard to go wrong with decorating as much of your house as you care to. Line the mantels with silver vines and candles; add green boughs tied with blue and silver ribbons.
I confined myself to Richard’s dining area. I poured another glass of wine and started to eyeball his teak sideboard. More candles obviously. Lights have to be everywhere. In this Mid-Century Modern setting, I thought a line of our shapely Modern Rustic candle holders should take center stage. What is lovely about these candleholders — designed by artisan John Ward of Treeware — is that they come in different heights and stained woods, so you can pick really any combination of shapes and colors and they will unfailingly work well together. They are also beautifully complemented by our warm yellow 100% Manuka beeswax Shabbat and Holiday candles (dripless too!).
Around these I placed silver branches, low candles, and more blue and silver starburst balls. The bundles of cedar branches became tall architectural columns on either side of the sideboard, while still keeping with the naturalistic “Seven Species” theme. But the wall above the sideboard looked bare — and by now it was getting dark…
FT&V’s finished Hanukkah sideboard. The wreath was an on-the-spot DIY project.
Photo by Renee Comet for FT&V.
Every year I like to make a Hanukkah-themed “wreath” to hang on our front door — which at minimum makes the neighbors do a double take. I still had the artificial birch branches and string of lights. The branches were bendable so would do the job nicely. I set to work fashioning them into two triangles to form the star, then lashed them together with silver florist wire. The cedar lights were then wrapped around and through the branches (you can get short sets of lights that are battery operated, and therefore do not need to be plugged in). So instead of hanging on the door this year, my wreath would glow above the sideboard.
Last: Placing the Menorah(s)
Some families light just one menorah over the holiday. I find it fun to collect all kinds of menorahs and place them around the house. For this dining room I had two, one for each window facing the dining table. The first was FT&V’s Modernist Ceramic menorah by Studio Armadillo, in the same style as the dreidel and geometric vases; the second was a last-minute inspiration from some fresh pomegranates I’d bought but had not yet used.
(Top) Modernist Ceramic menorah by Studio Armadillo; (Bottom) My “Pomegranate” menorah made by inserting candles into fresh pomegranates. Trails of silver vines, grapes, pinecones and other decorations bring seasonal sparkle. Photos by Renee Comet for FT&V.
Now the room was finished. All that needed to be done was to get started on making the latkes, which I’d do to perhaps with a sip more wine while listening to that greatest Hanukkah carol of them all, Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus.”
Who says Jews can’t adapt the customs of their surrounding communities without surrendering their Jewish identities? After all, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.