Christmas vs. Hanukkah, Round 1

HanukkahThanks to the PBS show Caillou, my daughter, who is almost 4, knows all about Christmas–about Santa, Christmas trees, presents, and caroling.  Thanks to my wife and me and some quick counter programming on our part, Adira also knows all about Hanukkah, about the candles and presents and foods. She also knows that we don’t celebrate Christmas but her babysitter does, and that Santa is pretend, for everyone and not just us.

And so it begins. Thanks a lot, Caillou. I was entirely unprepared for a DVD from the library called “Winter Wonders” featuring an otherwise bland, bald kid (whose name is not Charlie Brown) to bring Christmas into our home. In  October, no less. But that’s parenting. We don’t get to choose the timing.

I am not squeamish about differences and diversity.  I’m the observant Jew who studied religious pluralism at a divinity school, and who’s written about everything from Hare Krishnas to Mormons to evangelicals.  The last thing I want is to bring my daughter up in a world where she thinks everyone behaves and believes as we do, or looks down on those who don’t. Well… maybe that’s the second-to-last thing I want–the very last being bringing her up in a world where she doesn’t understand, appreciate, and love our own tradition and heritage, and in which she is jealous or angry that we don’t do as others do.

Easier said than done. I often see why people resort to simplistic extremes when teaching kids about these things. At one extreme, Us good, them bad, or wrong, or lesser. At the other end of the spectrum, Difference is irrelevant, we’re all really the same, everything beyond lowest-common-denominator agreement should be downplayed or tossed.

But I can’t go with either of those poles. How do I raise a child who at once feels deeply Jewish, who identifies with our particular way of being in the world, while at the same time understands, celebrates, and embraces the diversity all around us? Particular vs. universal. Tribe vs. world. It’s hard enough for us adults to navigate the terrain sometimes. But a child?

I think we are doing ok. I’ve tried to talk to Adira about what we believe and what others believe. She knows we go to shul (synagogue), and many other people, including Karen, the babysitter she loves so much, goes to something else, called a church. We pray and Karen prays, only differently. Adira knows she eats kosher food and others do not. She seems to love our lifestyle and be curious about how others live. And she knows that Santa is them and menorahs are us.

For now. We’ll see what the next couple of months hold, as Christmas fever descends on our society. Caillou is one thing, but what happens when carols and Santas and decorations are inescapable, and the beauty of Christmas tangible? I sometimes feel tugged toward it myself. Won’t she? I have no problem with her learning about Christmas or even liking what she sees, but will she really be able to understand why we don’t partake? Will our menorahs and chocolate coins and jelly donuts and gifts be able to compete? (A friend recently was shopping with his 3-year-old when they encountered a massive Santa display. “Look, it’s Hashem,” his daughter exclaimed, using the Hebrew word for God.)

At least Caillou has a Jewish friend to help me in my task.

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  1. by Sue Fendrick

    On October 25, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I honestly don’t feel it’s much of a problem. I went to public school and the main thing was I sometimes felt like I needed to really maximize my description of my Chanukah presents after winter break, b/c everyone was talking about their Christmas presents. But even in my somewhat observant but not traditional or especially ritually-oriented family (although I did have grandparents who were more traditional), it was so clear in a relaxed way that Christmas was someone else’s thing, not ours–we often went to Christian friends’ houses to enjoy their holiday (as they did to ours), but I don’t remember ever feeling seriously like “why can’t I have Christmas?” any more than I felt “Why can’t so-and-so’s parents be my parents?”

    I realize that was in the 60s and 70s and there is so much more hype now, and Christmas has become so de-religionized in the public sphere, but still…

    Re: this–”How do I raise a child who at once feels deeply Jewish, who identifies with our particular way of being in the world, while at the same time understands, celebrates, and embraces the diversity all around us?”–I feel like the question is its own answer. If you do that (and you obviously do), your children will; if you don’t, they won’t.

    What am I missing?

  2. by Renee

    On October 25, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I am a teacher for a headstart preschool program and we are getting more and more away from the holiday hype… My question is, I am christian but I cannot mention in my lesson plans, Christmas, Thanksgiving,Easter, any of Christian holidays but I can talk about Kwanza, Hannukkah, Three Kings day, I am not understanding, I dont believe in forcing religious beliefs on anyone nor do we speak religion in the classroom… We stress diversity and cultures in the classroom but we seem to be forgetting we are in america and we have holidays and culture..For example , parents will ask us if we are having a Thanksgiving celebration and we tell them we are not allowed to call it that but we will be having a fall festival.. or a winter celebration .. or a spring fling … please let me know what your thoughts on this subject is

  3. by Jan

    On October 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    I agree, Renee. I think we should include all celebrations, which means mentioning Christian ones by their rightful names.
    Christmas should be called Christmas. We don’t call Hannukkah the candle lighting ceremony or the 8 day festival.
    Why call Christmas a Happy Holiday or Winterfest? It’s silly, inaccurate and ultimately demeaning.

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  5. by Nick Shell

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    Michael, thank you for sharing this perfectly relevant post. I very much can relate to your perspective on this, even if from a somewhat opposite background. Also, it makes my day to find another kosher-abiding family. I live in a town where we are the only ones I know of. Bless you.

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  9. by Marny

    On December 17, 2011 at 8:28 am

    As a single parent I celebrated Chanukah with my children as our religious holiday and Christmas as a non-religious holiday.

    If I had it to do over — maybe I would not have done that.

    My daughter converted to Catholicism and my son couldn’t care less about any religion, and his wife doesn’t either and she was raised Catholic.

    Yet, all my cousins were raised in orthodox homes and went to Hebrew school throughout high school.

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