A Hanukkah Tree for Her Methodist Mom

A Jewish daughter searches for the perfect gift for her Christian mother.

Posted in , Nov 26, 2019

Mari and her mom, Susie, get in the spirit of the season.

I lingered at the kitchen table after Mom had left for work that morning. Tonight would be the fifth night of Hanukkah, and I was at a loss. What do I get my mother? We used to exchange gifts every night of the holiday when my brother and I were kids. Stuffed animals, puzzles and clothes for us. Usually something handmade for Mom and Dad. Now we did just one big gift exchange on the eighth and final night. It was enough to celebrate with candles and family the other seven days. But there were only three days left to think of the perfect present.

I remembered Hanukkahs we’d had growing up. Mom would make latkes while Dad led us in prayers. My brother and I ran to the living room after dinner to pick a present from the pile.

“Just one,” my parents would say.

I would stare at the dining room table, covered with 16 presents between us. I always tried to save the biggest for the last night. I liked having something to look forward to.

Things were different now. My brother and I were adults—or almost adults. After a year abroad as a teacher in Israel, I was living with my parents again and planning to move to New York City in February. My brother had just graduated college with a degree in urban planning. He wanted to take a trip around the country soon. He was in town for a few days, so we were all together for the first time in ages.


It would be hard to visit our parents over Hanukkah in the future. Eight days is a long time to take off work. This might be our last chance to celebrate the whole holiday together, I thought.

I wanted to make this Hanukkah special for my parents, especially my mother. She was a Methodist who’d never converted to Judaism yet had planned b’nai mitzvah, fasted on Yom Kippur and lighted candles with us on Hanukkah. There were a few things she couldn’t give up. She used to put up a Christmas tree and red stockings over the holidays. Though we never believed in Santa Claus, my brother and I listened to Christmas carols around the tree and dug into our stockings on Christmas Day. It made us feel as if we got the best of both worlds. And more presents! But my mother stopped putting up the tree as we got older. She worried it might confuse us. Mom wanted to make sure my brother and I knew we were Jewish first.

And she had done it—raised two Jewish children to adulthood. That’s why it was so important to find her the perfect present. It must have been so hard to raise children in a totally different faith from your own. I wanted to thank her. But how?

Then it hit me. I jumped up from the table and went to get supplies. For the next three days, while Mom was at her HR job at the National Science Foundation, I worked on her present. I wanted it to be a surprise. By the last night of Hanukkah, I had everything prepared. I’d been back and forth to craft stores, the supermarket and the neighborhood drugstore. I thought of all the times I’d made my mother’s Hanukkah present as a child: colored cards, books with coupons for chores and breakfast in bed, illustrations, wood menorahs. All these years later, and I was still crafting things for her by hand.

“Long day, dear?” my father asked when Mom walked through the door that night.

“Yes,” she said. “We can have dinner soon. I just have to drop off a few things upstairs.”

I sat on the couch, waiting for her to cross through the living room to the stairs. What would she think of my present? I wondered. She was home late. I knew she was exhausted.

“Hi, Mar—” she started to say, then stopped short. She dropped her bag on the floor.

There standing in the living room was a small Christmas tree, trimmed with handmade ornaments. Little wooden Santas painted red and white, clear baubles covered in glitter glue, a papier-mâché star perched on top. I’d never made my own ornaments before, let alone decorated a Christmas tree by myself. I hoped she liked it. But before my thoughts could get very far, my mother started crying. It had been years since she’d had a Christmas tree in her own house.

I put my arms around her and said, “Happy Hanukkah, Mom.”

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