Smile aside, Emma Goss was disappointed by the "Hanukkah Lights" night at Filoli House and Gardens in Woodside.
Smile aside, Emma Goss was disappointed by the "Hanukkah Lights" night at Filoli House and Gardens in Woodside.

I went to this glitzy event expecting Hanukkah lights, but I got bubkes  

UPDATED Dec. 3 at 5 p.m. to reflect refund and apology offered by Filoli.

I couldn’t wait to attend “Hanukkah Lights” at Filoli House and Gardens, an opulent and historic property in the hills of the tony Peninsula town of Woodside, adorned for the holiday season with spectacular lights.

Every Monday from late November through December, Filoli hosts themed holiday nights, encouraging visitors to wear festive clothing and accessories to get into the holiday spirit. Nov. 29, the second night of Hanukkah, was “Hanukkah Lights” night. Given the theme, one might have expected some Hanukkah lights amid all the Christmas glitz.

To my dismay, there were none to be found. No Hanukkah lights, no menorahs, nothing — I’d spun a “nun.” (Not that there were any dreidels around, either!)

Filoli is a 654-acre country estate on the National Register of Historic Places, with 16 acres of gardens and a mansion built in 1917. Visitors can attend events, tour the property, walk the trails and picnic throughout the year. On the website where my boyfriend purchased our $38 tickets — a Hanukkah gift to me — it said that if I showed my “seasonal spirit” matching the theme of the night, I’d get a special gift. So, there I was, with a blue and silver crown that sparkled with the words “Happy Hanukkah” (found last-minute at Target), in line to enter the estate.

There were children and adults wearing similar headpieces, some with tiny menorahs on springs, bouncing around like antennae atop their heads. Others wore Hanukkah-themed T-shirts advertising Jewish organizations. We all looked around at each other, giddy to be attending a rare Hanukkah event at a non-Jewish venue.

The prize I was handed for my Hanukkah crown was a palm-size paper circle that looked like a Christmas tree ornament. Inside were tiny seeds that, if planted, would grow wildflowers. Couldn’t they have given out dreidel-shaped seed packets at the very least?

Emma's Hanukkah tiara from Target
Emma’s Hanukkah tiara from Target

I marveled at the myriad colorful lights decorating trees and buildings, shrubs and walkways. Some were animated, and shimmered as I passed. It was like being in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.

As I entered the main house, I heard a woman, frustration and disappointment palpable in her voice, asking a staff member where the Hanukkah lights were — or any gesture toward Hanukkah on this supposedly Hanukkah-themed night.

One mother, looking at my Hanukkah crown, shook her head. She’d expected a menorah lighting, she said, and her kids were woefully disappointed to be walking through a house decked out in full Christmas mode. There were Christmas trees and wrapped presents in almost every room.

For a brief moment, the Christmas music reverberating through the house played a Hanukkah tune. Evidently, enough grumbles from Jewish visitors had prompted Filoli staff to accommodate the Hanukkah theme in a last-ditch Hail Mary effort, if you will. I can’t remember which song — it went by quickly.

As I toured the main house, admiring the elegant furnishings and decor, I noticed a glass cabinet where the staff put their holiday objects on display. On the top shelf, above eye level, were a small plastic wind-up dreidel with legs and a smiling face, a Christmas stocking decorated with a dreidel design, and a small tin menorah.


PHOTOS: Jews gather across Bay Area for public menorah lightings


“Prime spot on the shelf,” a woman next to me wryly quipped.

“It’s as much as we can ask for,” another one lamented.

In an email sent to J. in response to a query about the evening, Susan O’Sullivan, Filoli’s chief external affairs officer, acknowledged that including Hanukkah as one of the “casual themes” led to “misunderstanding and disappointment for some of our visitors this past Monday. While we did offer a few small acknowledgments of Hanukkah, by playing Hanukkah-themed music and displaying a family menorah in our staff holiday display in the historic House, we realize we could have done more.”

“Filoli is dedicated to being open and welcoming to all and we are committed to learning and transparency so we can continue to improve our efforts,” O’Sullivan said.

Toward the end of the night, I headed toward the outdoor cafe and bar, hoping a cup of mulled wine and a gingerbread cookie — a latke would be too much to ask for — might make our evening schlep to Woodside worth it in the end. The mulled wine was delicious.

I noticed a young girl with a menorah on her shirt, sitting at the fire pit opposite me. She had the same gingerbread man-shaped cookie as I did. I took a bite. “There’s no gingerbread in this cookie,” I exclaimed. It was shaped like a gingerbread man, but the dough had no spice in it. And it was hard as a hockey puck. The evening, as a whole, was like a sufganiyah with no jelly inside.


Editor’s note: Filoli has since contacted those who paid for tickets to the event, offering a refund and apology. “This was our first year recognizing the Hanukkah holiday as a themed evening and we are aware of our need to learn and grow the program further,” the email read in part. “We strive to ensure that people of all religions feel welcome at Filoli. We acknowledge our need to improve the visitor experience to meet the expectations of our guests. We are always seeking collaborative partners to advise us on ways to engage cultural groups. If you have suggestions on who we could partner with we would appreciate your help making a connection.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.