Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.
This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?
"I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"
Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.
"The main thing is that I want my kids to know that they're Jewish and our celebration of the holidays is different," said Hoffman, in a telephone interview. "They also know mommy is a Catholic and we celebrate both holidays, but we really celebrate Hanukkah -- big time.
"We're in both worlds, but we're trying make a statement that we're different and that this is a good thing."
The holiday puzzle is really complicated during Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights" that began at sundown on Tuesday, Dec. 16, this year. The season's primary symbol is a menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum that represents a miracle in which a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels -- the Maccabees -- liberated the temple from Greek oppressors.
Part of the puzzle, of course, is that this relatively minor Jewish holiday is aligned with Christmas during "The Holidays," an explosion of secular marketing and festivities that dominate American life this time of year. Many Jews avoid Christmas altogether, striving to focus on Hanukkah traditions. Some keep the season's gift-giving modest, to avoid appearances of turning Hanukkah into a "Jewish Christmas."
However, many Jews -- especially in interfaith homes -- have made their peace with Christmas, while exploring the line between the sacred and secular. Is a green tree safe, especially when topped with a six-pointed Star of David? Do snowflakes and icicles suggest the North Pole and, thus, Santa Claus?
Holiday cards also inspire a "swirling snow globe of emotions" for many Jews, noted Lenore Skenazy, of the reality television show "World's Worst Mom." Most generic holiday cards don't cry out "Victory for the Maccabees!"
"So the question is: Does sending a not-specifically-Hanukkah card mean the sender is buying into Christmas?", she asked, in an essay for The Forward. Some Jews choose "purely wintery" blue and silver cards -- avoiding red and green -- seeking a look that is "neither Santa nor latke."
But some people question all those winter symbols, too. "Snowmen, believe it or not, turn out to be a minefield all their own," she noted. One friend she contacted stressed, "No trees, wreaths or snowmen for me! ... By trees, she meant Christmas trees. Ditto, Christmas wreaths. But snowmen? Big, smiling balls of snow? Those are taboo?"
Are reindeer safe? How about polar bears? When one of his sons begged for one of the hip "Elf on the Shelf" plush toys, Hoffman responded by creating a "Mensch on a Bench" alternative. This toy is now sold nationwide, with its a hardback story book explaining its Yiddish roots.
In the age of social media -- especially zillions of visual Pinterest boards -- all kinds of secular and religious Jews are sharing tips on how to create do-it-yourself traditions that reflect their own unique family trees, he said. It's hard to imagine a more American approach to solving the holiday puzzles in the lives of many modern families.
"We're just not accepting what's been done before and what's out there on the shelves and that's that," said Hoffman. "We're thinking this through as a family and coming up with a plan that is meaningful for us. ... That's what matters the most. We are all in this together, as a family."