My daughter said something very funny the other day. Let me set up the story by explaining (especially for readers who may not already know) that we are Jewish. My 6-year-old daughter is just beginning to understand differences and similarities, and what defines her in relation to her friends and the people we know. She’s also becoming more aware of her identity and role and the community groups important in her life—family, friends, classmates and now our synagogue congregation.
“Mom,” she said. “I’m really glad we celebrate Hanukkah, and not Christmas.”
“Really, sweets? Why do you feel that way?” I responded, thinking how grateful we could now be that some of her Sunday School experiences were kicking in and that she was really identifying with her culture and religion.
“Well, people who celebrate Christmas have a problem. If they’re bad and naughty, they don’t get presents. But if I’m bad, I can still get Hanukkah presents. I think I prefer celebrating Hanukkah.”
Actually more like, Oy vey!
While her father and I know we’re in for some scary years ahead with that one, she’s definitely got some wit for a 6-year-old. But her unintentional joke belied another sentiment: she was compensating for her insecurity about being different.
How do I know? Because the thing she said after the ‘if-you’re-bad-you-still-get-presents’ line was this: “I think I’m the only kid in my class who’s Jewish. Maybe I’m the only Jewish kid in the school.”
I know exactly how she’s feeling. When I was in first grade, like she is now, I really was the only Jewish child in a K-6 school. The. Only. One.
From the vantage point of a first grader, I can see how the sudden appearance of all things Christmas can make the occasional reminder of your subtle differences from almost everyone around you suddenly feel like a constant beacon announcing, “One of these things is not like the other—and that’s you!”
One of our challenges is also to help both our children understand their heritage from both sides—their father’s and mine. My husband isn’t Jewish but it’s what we practice in our home and it’s how we’re raising our children. Whenever we travel to see his family at Christmastime, we do celebrate Christmas with them.
But this is where I’ve tried to start to weave a narrative that works for our family and helps my daughter especially to integrate who she is with what celebrations she sees around her, and how—even when we don’t celebrate the Christmas holiday and traditions as part of our own religious practice—that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate it.
We can celebrate the traditions that our friends have when we participate with them. This year we’ve been invited to friends’ home on Christmas Eve. This family enjoys the Italian Christmas tradition of Festa dei sette pesci, or the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It will be a first for my family and we’ll revel in the joy of good friends opening their home to include us in their most meaningful of family holiday celebrations.
We can also celebrate a tradition that so often is associated with Christmas—that of opening our hearts to give assistance to the needier in our society. We have tried to incorporate community volunteering into our own family rituals at this time, and talk with our children about how the spirit of giving to others is such an important practice and belief, especially when we are so fortunate to have so much, especially at gift-giving time.
What’s more, we can also celebrate by inviting non-Jews to celebrate Hanukkah with us. We often get jelly donuts and make potato latkes, and have friends join us in marking one of the eight nights of the Festival of Lights. By making it a moment to enjoy with those we care about, our kids will hopefully look past the material trappings that have come to define the holidays and remember the spirit of the season.
Someone recently told me about how his children were just on the cusp of figuring out whether they thought Santa Claus was real or not. What he plans to tell them when they ever do stop believing is that Santa isn’t “just” a person—it’s a spirit of generosity and joy, of giving and sharing. And whoever has to, or would want to stop believing in that?
So even though we may not celebrate Christmas as members of a religion that does, it doesn’t mean we have to stop celebrating it, or believing in what it stands for. Hopefully I can teach my children to celebrate their own heritage and traditions as well as how they can feel a part of the ever-present surroundings that remind them of the prevalence of Christmas.
And if it helps me convince my crafty, brilliant daughter that she still has to be good, that’s all the better!