Holidays

Helping my Jewish kids find their place at the Christmas season party

The National Christmas tree can be seen behind the national menorah after the menorah was lit during the annual national menorah lighting ceremony marking the start of the celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014.
The National Christmas tree can be seen behind the national menorah after the menorah was lit during the annual national menorah lighting ceremony marking the start of the celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. The Associated Press

Fa la la la la, we decked our house out! In October. Because December is for Christmas, and the closest we get to tinsel is the wax-catching foil under our Menorah.

But Halloween? We can do that. My husband props skeletons on our roof, hangs ghosts and goblins off our porch, plants “Danger” signs in our garden and stretches cobwebs 8 feet high and 20 feet long. The delight in my 7-year-old son’s face (and slight fear in my 5-year-old daughter’s) when they wake up, step outside and rub the sleep from their eyes to see our house transformed is possibly the closest we get to holiday joy.

Nonsecular as it is, Halloween is a spectacularly inclusive holiday. But as soon as the wind eats through the cobwebs, the squirrels eat through the jack-o’-lanterns and the kids eat through the candy, icy Christmas creeps in its joyous stead.

Wreath and stocking catalogs arrive in the mail, twinkling lights pop up on trees, Starbucks cups turn red, peppermint stick chocolate bark and edible advent calendars line the shelves at grocery stores. I bought a bag of potato crisp snacks for my kids. “They’re shaped like Christmas trees!” my daughter noticed.

Some may simply note, “The holidays are coming!” But let’s be honest: It’s Christmas in the air. Hanukkah is more like the ugly stepsister who gets a little politically correct attention. (And Diwali and Kwanzaa are like the forgotten-about cousins who are never included in any family gatherings.)

Growing up, I never felt cheated by the discrepancy. Maybe it’s because the Detroit suburb where I lived was mostly Jewish, so no one really sent Christmas cards, or had Christmas trees, or sang Christmas carols. I was happy with my catchy dreidel songs, chocolate gelt and oniony-smelling latkes.

For better or worse, though, I chose to leave that insular environment. I’m raising my family in Chicago. My children attend a private school where I can count the number of Jewish families in each of my kids’ grades on one hand. And as soon as the first signs of “the holidays” hit, my ever-observant son begins to ask questions.

“Hanukkah is eight days, right?”

“That’s right,” I say.

“So we get to open gifts for eight nights, right?”

“Yes.”

“And Christmas is just one day. Right?”

“Yes.”

“So they only get one day of gifts, right?”

That seems to comfort him somehow. And I’m not going to be the one to break the news about the jaw-dropping amount of gifts that are exchanged on that “one” day.

Or he asks: “Why are there so many cartoons and TV shows about Christmas but none about Hanukkah?” Judging from the number of times he brings up this topic of contention, he is clearly unsatisfied with my simple answer: More people celebrate Christmas.

It’s true, though. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, 9 out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas. Which means that it isn’t just Christians who are cozying up to St. Nick. And I don’t blame all the revelers … after all, it’s almost impossible to resist the two-month-long intense marketing blitz of Holiday Cheer.

“We’re getting a tree this year,” my hopeful, holiday-decorating husband said nonchalantly over turkey Bolognese the other night. The kids’ faces lit up, like they were witnessing a Christmas miracle. But I Grinched that thought right then and there: “No. We don’t celebrate Christmas,” I stated with finality. Shoulders slumped, they slurped their pasta in silence.

It’s not that I’m an uber-Jew. In fact, we’re pretty much the opposite – we don’t keep kosher, we don’t celebrate Shabbat and we don’t go to services – even during the High Holidays. In fact, we don’t belong to a Temple.

Still, we will not be among the one-third of American Jews who have a Christmas tree in their house. And it’s obviously not because I feel too religious to celebrate the holly jolly day, even culturally. It turns out, it’s the opposite reason: I’m not religious enough. And I’m blaming my tree resistance on my Jewish guilt.

I grew up secure in my Jewish identity. I dressed like Queen Esther for Purim carnivals. I shook lulavs and etrogs in the shade of handmade sukkots. I ate raspberry-filled hamentashen and sang for the Pharoah to “Let my people go!” But I hate to admit, I’m pretty much failing when it comes to passing those traditions down to my children. And I’m uncomfortable with them filling the void with mistletoe memories.

That night, while snuggled under our down comforter, I explained myself to my husband. “I can’t have our kids celebrating Christmas until they understand what it means to be Jewish,” I told him. He seemed to understand, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being selfish by withholding the merriness of Christmas from my kids. After all, it’s not their fault they don’t know the story of Moses. It’s not like I’ve tried to teach them. Although I did go to their school to demonstrate the dreidel game and make hand-print menorahs.

That day, watching my son and daughter with their friends in class, I was reminded that the majority of their classmates are not Jewish. It’s not like my kids aren’t asked to join the reindeer games, it’s just that while everyone else hangs twinkly lights, they merely stand on the outside and observe. Whether I like it or not, during the holidays, my kids can’t help but feel like they aren’t invited to the proverbial “party.”

The interesting thing about traditions is that they are malleable. Growing up, my parents never decorated our house for Halloween – that’s my little family’s tradition. This year, I think I’ll start something new. And while hanging ornaments from a Christmas tree is still not an option, I may be open to stringing silver bells around a Hanukkah bush. And I can’t wait to see the joy on my family’s faces when I tell them we’re definitely joining a Temple … next year.

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