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Christmas v. Hanukkah

Why Jewish holidays win in our house

by Emily Mendell

December 7, 2009

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There comes a time in most Jewish parents’ lives when their child asks if they can convert to Christianity. The moment is predictable. At some point between the ages of six and ten, our sons or daughters make their well thought out case for conversion. It always takes place in December and goes something like this:

Child: Mom, do you think this year we could do the whole Christmas thing?

Mom : Do you mean like do the Jesus thing? The church thing?

Child : Uh, no. I mean the lights thing, the tree thing and the Santa thing.

Mom : Well, we’re Jewish.

Child : I know but can’t we celebrate both? Jake celebrates both!

Mom: Jake’s Mom is Catholic and his Dad is Jewish. That makes sense.

Child: Well, Sarah is all Jewish and her family has a Christmas tree! Can we?

And so the conversation goes. It comes as little surprise that our Jewish kids want to convert to Christmas. Not Christianity, mind you – but Christmas. Despite our attempts to elevate the hype of Hanukkah so that our children will have something worthy to celebrate alongside their peers, we Jews really can’t compete with the public exuberance that comes with Christmas.

Christian kids get the tree, Santa and his reindeer, and one mother lode of a morning complete with a pile of presents and a stocking full of goodies. Jewish boys and girls get a wooden spinning top, a candle holder, potato pancakes, and a cap of eight presents, including the last night of Hanukkah which inevitably yields something equivalent to a new pair of socks.

And then there are the decorations. Every year we marvel at the elaborate holiday displays set up at the houses in our town. We drive through the streets, ooh and ahhing over the beautiful arrays of lights, each of my boys picking their personal favorites, only to return home to what we laughingly refer to as “the dark hole at the end of the street.” It is the one time of the year when it is visibly apparent to our kids that we are different from most of our neighbors. Rightly or wrongly, they feel left out.

We could do as some Jewish families do and bring in a “Hanukkah bush,” put up some sparkly blue lights, or talk excitedly about a midnight visit from Hanukkah Harry. We know some Jewish families who make no effort to retain their Jewish identity and skip directly to celebrating Christmas, complete with tree, stockings and a visit from Santa. There is no religious significance involved; they do it for fun. Despite the appeal of this approach to our children, this is called assimilation and it is not for us.

Christmas v. Hanukkah

Why Jewish holidays win in our house

by Emily Mendell

December 7, 2009

400x236.jpg

Celebrating Christmas or turning Hanukkah into something resembling a Christmas celebration so that our children can have a better time or greater sense of belonging feels wrong on a number of levels. It is equivalent to stealing something that does not belong to us. We do not go to church or believe in the fundamental principles of the holiday itself. Crossing over to Christmas is cherry picking the material joys of a religion to which we do not commit on a regular basis. There is enough criticism around the commercialization of Christmas without the Jewish tourists contributing to the problem.

Yet more importantly, hijacking another holiday marginalizes our own religion in the eyes of our children. If their identity is diluted at an early age, it will be that much more difficult to carry on the traditions that rightfully belong to them. It also sends a strong message to the kids that what they have doesn’t quite measure up. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. As parents, it is our job to make our holiday memorable. And the truth is it’s not that hard of a task.

Hanukkah, when celebrated with love and family, is a pretty darn good time. We have built and carried on our own traditions that may not be as mainstreamed as Christmas morning rituals, but serve the same purpose bringing our family together in a meaningful way. For us, each night of Hanukkah has come to serve a special purpose. We have family game night, “kids rule the kitchen” cooking night, and the blow-out treasure hunt on the last night, with other themes and guests of honor sprinkled in between. The smell of potato latkes crisping up in oil, anticipation of the candle lighting, and the sounds of our family singing the blessings, never in harmony but always in unison, brings smiles to my children’s faces and makes me feel warm all over.

We never turn down a good candy cane when offered to us. The winter holidays are a unique opportunity to teach our children the importance of religious freedom and commitment to our own faith. Our family gets to enjoy Christmas vicariously in many ways without converting. We join our Christian friends at their tree trimming parties, we sing along to our favorite carols on the radio in the car and we never turn down a good candy cane when offered to us. Our children are taught not to correct strangers who wish them a Merry Christmas but to say thank you and return the sentiment. But when all is said and done, we return home every night in December to our Jewish house where we celebrate exclusively the religious holiday that is rightfully ours.

Alas, our home will remain the dark hole at the end of the street for another year. Our neighbors who are untangling strings of lights, blowing fuses and sweeping up pine needles as they assemble their holiday decor insist to us that the whole “Christmas thing” is overrated. One of them remarked that they would like to convert to Judaism because Hanukkah seems so much easier, ringing true the one holiday tenet to which we can perhaps all relate: The lights are always brighter on the other side of the fence.

Find more:

How do I tell my daughter Santa doesn’t come to our house?

A Very Muslim Christmas: Would having a tree betray our faith?

Where are Christmas specials for Jewish kids?

This article was written by Emily Mendell for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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