How I'm Helping My Jewish Kids Get Over Their Christmas Envy
December isn't always easy if you're Jewish.
Kids are barraged with Christmas movie commercials, Christmas songs on the radio (all of which we love!), neighborhoods full of Christmas decorations, Christmas parties (fewer of them this year, but there are still virtual gift exchanges), and accouterments of a spectacular and magical holiday that is not ours to celebrate.
I am raising my 13- and 10-year-old daughters in an Ashkenazi Jewish family (Jews of European descent). And although we don't necessarily go to temple every Saturday, our kids have a thorough understanding of their culture and its history: We celebrate Jewish holidays, we read extensively about the Holocaust (Night was my older child's eighth grade reading material this fall), and we wear our Star of David necklaces frequently and proudly. My husband and I married and renewed our vows in a synagogue. We have a mezuzah (a parchment and sign of faith inscribed with religious texts) on our doorpost. My kids attend Jewish day camps in the summer. My daughter had a small, pandemic-friendly bat mitzvah a few months ago.
And yet, the magic of Christmas beckons my daughters. It calls to them with its sweetness (its caramel-peppermint mochas at all the coffee shops) and draws them in with reindeer, Mariah Carey, ornaments at Target, garlands, Christmas parties disguised as "holiday" parties, and the tree—oh, that tree.
One of my daughters desperately wants a Christmas tree. She stares at ornaments at Target. She longs for cozy pajamas with Santas on them and stockings on the fireplace. My other daughter says that all her classmates are discussing their Elf on the Shelf and his tricks on a daily basis.
I feel my daughters' discomfort. I see their yearning for something that doesn't belong to them, something that is just out of their reach.
So, naturally, to prevent our kids from feeling as if they're missing out on something as enchanting as Christmas, we do the only thing Jews can do at this time of year: We go crazy on Hanukkah—especially this year.
We do it not because Hanukkah is necessarily a major Jewish holiday (it’s not), but because it offers an opportunity to celebrate in the wintertime—especially this wintertime.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that we even have a Mensch on the Bench (a somewhat silly non-equivalent of Elf on the Shelf) who moves around our living room when the kids go to sleep.
For these eight days of Hanukkah, we partake in traditional celebrations. We light the menorah, cook latkes, eat jelly donuts, spin dreidels, put up lights, give gifts every night, and do volunteer work at least two of the evenings. We hang a "Happy Hanukkah" sign on our door. We immerse into the Festival of Lights because it's beautiful and because we love it, but also because we so desperately want our kids to love it, too.
Is it working? I’m not sure. In part, I believe the kids are learning to appreciate Hanukkah and its lovely customs. They gladly participate, but it’s difficult to completely erase the presence of Christmas, so immersed are we in it as a culture.
But this year, during a global pandemic, I have been particularly sensitive to any consideration of forgoing traditions and customs that we have come to enjoy. In a year when nothing has been the same, we want to—need to!—know that our practices and routines can and will withstand, as they have for thousands of years.
This year, it's especially comforting to light candles and give out chocolate gelt.
This year, what we need most of all is for our kids to know that traditions sustain us, keep us one as a people, and allow us to thrive on and on for generations.
That’s a hard concept to comprehend when you're a teenager or a pre-teen who simply wants to conform, belong, and be just like “everyone else.” It saddens me, as it saddens them, though for different reasons.
And in a world where assimilation is often desired and standing out and apart is oh-so-difficult, we might be hoping against hope that our children will somehow learn to embrace the meaningful, lovely customs of Jewish holidays, without constantly comparing them to those of their non-Jewish friends.
Yet, through the bittersweetness of it all, I’ve noticed something: Traditions—no matter what they are—give us a way to talk about and celebrate our place in the world, our contributions, and our way of making the holidays special.
At the beginning of December, my kids sent me their Hanukkah wish lists. I requested them, but I was thrilled to see that they were excited to send them. They’ve been wearing new outfits and getting their nails done for our Hanukkah dinners. And although they know it’s silly, they do enjoy the Mensch on the Bench. So do I. So does my husband. But mostly, we spend a lot of time talking—about holidays, about family, about ancestors, about rituals.
And every year, but especially this year, those are the conversations I want to be having.