When she left Montana for college in Minneapolis, Avital Barnea knew she'd join a Jewish community larger than the 30 families that sustained her hometown synagogue in Billings. She also hoped that once Hanukkah came around, she'd have options to shop for holiday decorations and gifts that went beyond the cards and menorahs sold at her temple's tiny gift shop.
At a Target near the University of Minnesota, she asked where she could find Hanukkah cards and wrapping paper. No one knew.
"They were taking me around the store, saying, 'Maybe it's here, maybe it's there,'" Barnea said. "They couldn't find it."
As it turned out, only one Target in the Twin Cities area carried any Hanukkah inventory. So Barnea settled on a generic card — "'Happy New Year' or something," she said — and gave up.
Tradition teaches that more than 2,000 years ago, the Jews celebrated a victory over a cruel king and the rededication of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. The story goes that a small amount of oil, used to light the Temple's menorah, miraculously burned for eight days.
But many Americans shopping for Hanukkah goods each year are hard-pressed to find enough trinkets to last just one.
That is especially true for Jews who don't live near stores that sell Jewish ceremonial art, also known as Judaica, and who rely on major retailers or online stores for those items. Despite being flush with Christmas decor the moment Halloween ends, most retailers only stock a few shelves of Hanukkah goods — a splash of blue-and-white inventory in a sea of red and green. Usually, they are sold in tandem with the Christmas season, even though Hanukkah's dates shift each year and can start as early as November. (This year, Hanukkah began the evening of Dec. 2 and ends the night of Dec. 10.)
Retail analysts and shoppers have their theories: Retailers know they won't see huge profits from Hanukkah sales, so they have little incentive to stock a range of options. In the United States, merchants typically debut holiday wares all at once. The Jewish population in America is also more geographically widespread than in decades past, making it harder for stores to focus inventory in specific neighborhoods.
But there are signs of progress. This year marks the first time Target has stocked Hanukkah merchandise in all of its 1,850 locations nationwide. The company looks at sales data and gathers input from store managers and shoppers to pinpoint what inventory would work best at each shop, Target spokesman Joshua Thomas said.
Nevertheless, Hanukkah still confounds the retail industry. Rabbi Chaim Mahgel-Friedman, co-owner of the Judaica store Afikomen in Berkeley, Calif., said buyers for supermarkets, drug and convenience stores often "miss the mark" by placing Hanukkah orders too late in the season.
"They didn't order the gelt in time for Hanukkah, and it's like, 'Oh god, we missed it! Isn't it always around Christmas?'" Mahgel-Friedman said, referring to the chocolate coins given to Jewish children during the festival. "This year, it's definitely not around Christmas. It's an item line that isn't at the front of most people's consciousness."
Barnea, for example, said that after she moved to Washington in 2011, she was excited to find Hanukkah cards she liked at a Papyrus — but she only found them after the holiday was over.
On a morning in late November, the options were scant at stores across Washington. At a Michaels, a reporter asked whether the store sold Hanukkah decorations. A confused employee responded with: "Who?"
Another employee chimed in, "It's just ribbon. You want to see it?"
Thus began a walking tour through Michaels' Christmas inventory — past the trees and the twinkly lights, past a figurine Santa holding a surfboard, past a life-size nutcracker. The employees decided that a set of ribbons, decorated in blue and silver snowflakes, were "Hanukkah inspired." Meanwhile, a Christmas carol played through the overhead speaker: "And put a smile on someone's face/ 'cause it's Christmas every day."
A spokesperson for Michaels said about 40 percent of the company's approximately 1,110 U.S. stores carry Hanukkah inventory. The seasonal assortment is introduced in mid-October. Many of the stores that sell Hanukkah goods already sold through much or all of their stock by November, the company said.
At a CVS across town, there were no Hanukkah items in an aisle of discounted Halloween candy, build-your-own gingerbread houses and "I Love My Chihuahua" ornaments. An employee said it would be another week before he knew if the store would get any Hanukkah inventory.
A CVS spokesperson said stores supplement their assortment based on sales and that customers can speak to managers about ordering products.
A Target across the street had a modest Hanukkah section, taking up about one-quarter of an aisle in addition to a separate display of cards and gift wrap. There were a few menorahs, candles and table decorations. Those were laid out next to nonholiday items: kitchen towels decorated with Stars of David, an inflatable balloon banner that spelled "L'Chaim," and an apron that read, "Schmutz."
At Bed Bath & Beyond, an employee conceded that the Hanukkah goods were confined to "a small section." Still, the store stocked a few kinds of menorahs, candles and dreidels, as well as wall decorations, a latke server and Hanukkah-shaped pasta. In addition to menorahs, dreidels and candles, a Walmart in Washington sold Hanukkah cookies, stuffed animals, a menorah-shaped headband and a baby bib that read, "My 1st Hanukkah!"
But nearly all that inventory was dwarfed by Christmas items. At Target, for example, most of the store's entire back wall had been transformed into a Christmas wonderland, complete with trees, light-up reindeer and buckets of $3 ornaments.
Retail experts say there's a paradox to Hanukkah inventory being lumped together with Christmas wares.
Alana Berman-Gnivecki, gallery manager at Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery in Brookline, Massachusetts, said her store actually profits more from Passover sales because the holiday involves more ritual items. Kolbo opened in 1978 and stocks Hanukkah inventory year-round, Berman-Gnivecki said, with an added push in November and December.
"I think that big-box stores, and just America in general, makes this big deal about Hanukkah because of its proximity to Christmas," Berman-Gnivecki said. "I think it's a misunderstanding of what our important holidays are."
Marshal Cohen, an expert on consumer behavior at The NPD Group said retailers see more of a boost from Hanukkah sales when the holiday falls later in the season.
"When it's around Christmas, it's always a bigger and better holiday because of the traffic and the impulse and the frenzy," he said.
Berman-Gnivecki and Mahgel-Friedman said shoppers don't get the same experience shopping online as if they went to a Judaica store. But since many communities don't have Judaica stores of their own, going online is often the only option. Barnea said Amazon is her go-to. Stores like Target, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and Michaels have more extensive Hanukkah sections on their websites.
Barbara Tellerman, a radiologist in Columbia, Mississippi, said she does almost all of her Hanukkah shopping online due to a lack of options in town. She has a list of websites that she turns to for ritual items and foods year-round. When she visits family and friends in larger cities, Tellerman said she's always excited to see what their Judaica stores have to offer.
"People just take for granted that they can walk in there and get what they need," she said.
This year, Tellerman said she was relying on online shopping.
Still, she said she knows she can always run to Target or Walgreens, just in case.
"If you're really in a pinch," Tellerman said, "you can always get a box of candles."