Separating Hanukkah from Christmas
Raising a non-Christian child in a predominantly Christian country is a constant challenge. But around Christmas, life can get particularly complicated.
Because Hanukkah falls so close to Christmas, it's tempting for Jewish parents to try to turn it into a similar holiday experience. But this can send a confusing message to kids. From Frosty to Santa, the secular symbols of Christmas -- and the magical world they suggest -- are so enticing for children that no matter how hard parents try to twist Hanukkah into a "Jewish Christmas," it comes off as a pale and not very satisfying substitute.
What's a parent to do?
Hanukkah is a joyous and meaningful holiday that doesn't need wrapping in Christmas tinsel. But it's not easy for Jewish parents to find effective ways to cope with the secular hoopla that surrounds Christmas. It is very much a part of American life and few children, even non-Christian children, are immune to its lure. Here are some tips and ideas to help you and your family navigate the commercialism and have a meaningful Hanukkah.
Talking About How Your Family Celebrates Hanukkah
The Words: "There are lots of wonderful things about being Jewish, but it's hard at this time of year to be surrounded by Christmas symbols."
The Reason: It's a rare child who can avoid being seduced by the glitter and tinsel of Christmas. Even as you remind your children of how glad you are to be Jewish, let them know you understand that it can be hard, especially at this time of year, to be part of a minority culture.
The Words: "What is it about Christmas that appeals to you?"
The Reason: See if you can find out exactly what it is about Christmas that your child wants to participate in. Once you know, it will be easier to figure out how to help him cope.
The Words: "Remember, decorating trees isn't a part of Hanukkah. Let's talk about what activities are a part of it."
The Reason: Engage your children in planning for Hanukkah and participating in the holiday preparations. Perhaps your family has friends who have a Christmas tree and your kids can help them decorate it.
The Words: "You know, Hanukkah isn't the "Jewish Christmas."
The Reason: Talk with your kids about the meaning of Hanukkah and its significance to Judaism, and about the significance of Christmas to Christianity.
The Words: "In our family, we celebrate Hanukkah this way."
The Reason: If you decide not to exchange gifts at Hanukkah, explain why. At the same time, you can talk about why you -- and lots of other people -- are unhappy with how commercialized Hanukkah has become. If you're going to exchange gifts, talk with your kids about your feelings about gift-giving, both positive and negative.
Tips for Involving Kids in the Holiday
Your children's understanding of Hanukkah will evolve as they grow. The more they learn about what the holiday -- and being Jewish -- mean to you, the more they'll be able to make their own informed choices about how they want to relate to Judaism as adults. Here are some tips to get kids involved.
Ask for your kids' input
Make sure your children know that you're glad to talk with them about the holidays and the choices you've made. Ask them how they'd like to celebrate, but make it clear that asking for input doesn't mean they'll get all of their wishes.
There are lots of resources for celebrating Hanukkah meaningfully. If you don't have access to a Jewish bookstore, look through Judaica sections at the library or your local bookstore, or shop online.
Minimize gift giving
Some Jewish families minimize or eliminate gift-giving during Hanukkah, and concentrate on enjoying the holiday's more traditional pleasures. Elaborate gifts have only become a part of Hanukkah in an attempt to compensate children for not having Christmas. If parents let getting gifts become the main focus of Hanukkah, they may inadvertently diminish the holiday's real meaning for their kids.
Read aloud each night
The Spotted Pony, by Eric A. Kimmel (1992, Holiday House, New York) is a wonderful collection of Jewish folk tales to read aloud each night of Hanukkah. Some are funny, some are sad, and all of them appeal to both kids and adults.
Include children in giving and receiving
If you decide to exchange gifts at Hanukkah, or any other time, make sure that kids are included in the giving and the receiving. Encourage children to make presents and put thought into the gifts that they give.
Ideas for Coping with the Christmas Season
Create your own traditions
Some Jewish families choose to ignore Christmas completely, while others decide to participate in the secular aspects of the holiday by exchanging presents Christmas morning, making gingerbread houses, or going out to look at Christmas lights. Some parents allow their children to hang stockings and believe in Santa Claus. Others designate another day during the season for family gift-giving.
Teach kids about differences
Whether or not you allow your children to participate in any part of the Christmas season, it's important to teach them about the holiday's religious meaning to Christians. Talking to children about the story of Christmas is a good way to help them think about the similarities and differences between the beliefs of Jews and Christians. These conversations can set the stage for learning about beliefs and holidays of other religions as well.
Share your celebrations
One appealing way to help children benefit from living in a multicultural society is to invite non-Jewish friends to join in your Jewish holiday celebrations and, in turn, celebrate Christmas (and/or other holidays) with your non-Jewish friends. Even at an early age, kids can understand that different people celebrate different holidays and that these celebrations are fun! If gift-giving is a part of the holiday party, it's fine to include your children in both the giving and the receiving.