Come December, it’s hard to take even one step outside without being ambushed by gaudy light displays, red-and-green-clad carolers, and jolly, old men wishing everyone a very merry Christmas. And with all the festivities, it’s hard to imagine that everyone isn’t “hanging their stockings by the chimney with care.”
But for many, including boys and girls of the Jewish faith, the winter holidays have absolutely nothing to do with Santa or his eight magical reindeer. You may have seen those kids in school, awkwardly avoiding the classroom gift exchange or trying to get excused from the Christmas pageant. Indeed, for followers of Judaism, the holidays require deft skill, as they seek to navigate a Christmas-crazy society while holding fast to their faith. Here’s what those children — and their parents — want you to know about their experiences.
1. Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday.
America has certainly become obsessed with all-things-Christmas, as retailers can hardly wait until Halloween is over before putting out nutcracker figurines and gingerbread houses. And while it is certainly tempting to simply transfer that same level of emphasis to Hanukkah, it should likely be reserved for other Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah.
“I don’t think Hanukkah is one of the holier holidays,” says Rachel Teichman, blogger at Oogiah.com. “Life continues as usual, and nothing is forbidden like work or driving a car. That being said, I think the extra emphasis on Hanukkah, including gift giving and decorations, has to do with its proximity to Christmas.”
Teichman notes that her family does enjoy celebrating Hanukkah by making latkes and lighting the menorah, but she is careful to ensure that her children don’t associate the holiday only with gifts, even though they do receive some. “My daughter just asked me why we get gifts on Hanukkah, and I said it was because of Christmas,” she adds.
2. Invitations to “non-religious” events are unnecessary and may be offensive.
“Imagine being allergic to lavender,” says Dana Greyson. “You go to a friend’s house. Her dad works at a lavender farm but she doesn’t notice their house reeks of lavender; it’s normal for her. I’m allergic and want to choke, but it’s something only I notice, and it only impacts me. They all think something’s wrong with me.”
For Greyson, this analogy perfectly illustrates the thinking of well-meaning Christians who invite her and other Jews to holiday-themed church events that are inherently religious, despite promises that they wont be. “Being invited doesn’t offend me,” she explains. “What does offend me is when supposedly secular events in the church include the very frequent use of the word Jesus and Christ and are interlaced with lots of gospel. The Christians don’t notice it. I do.”
Christians are so immersed in the normalcy of their religion, adds Greyson, that they don’t realize when they are forcing their views onto someone else, intentionally or not. And it tends to happen quite frequently around the holidays.
3. But participation is not assimilation.
While attending a church event with Christians may be too difficult for Jews like Greyson, others still have a desire to fellowship with non-Jewish friends and are able to do so without compromising their beliefs.
Alina Adams used to worry about her child’s involvement in the school Christmas play, but she changed her position by considering his involvement a celebration of his American roots, not his affiliation with Christianity or some Santa-filled traditions. “I feel about my kids participating in a Christmas story the same way I would about them doing a play about Greek myths, Roman gods or the festival of Diwali,” says Adams. “It’s just another experience and something new and fun to learn.”
Rabbi Cassi Kail, who is also mom of Noam, age 3, and Talia, age 2, agrees. “A friend compared a Jew going to a Christmas celebration to a child going to another’s birthday: he knows the party is not for him, but he wishes to celebrate with his friend and have a good time anyway,” she says. “The world can use a few more celebrations together, but they are that much more worthwhile when we first understand our own faith.”
4. We’re not missing out.
If you’ve ever felt bad for a Jewish child who never had a Christmas tree or sat on Santa’s lap while growing up, don’t, says Kail. “Judaism has so many beautiful traditions, from culinary delights such as latkes with apple sauce, to family celebrations, exchanging gifts and lighting the Hanukkah candles each night,” she explains. “But more than that, Judaism has a powerful message that this world is full of miracles. When the world seems dark, the light within often exceeds our expectations. We can overcome even insurmountable foes if only we have hope, faith and determination. We are strong, and we have much to be proud of. When kids feel the pride of our tradition, other traditions are no longer a threat. Rather, we can celebrate at one another’s ‘birthday parties’ with love and appreciation for one another.”