For We Need A Little Christmas—Or Do We?
Ariel Foxman consults the experts on how best to approach religion with your children this holiday season and beyond.
“May I ask you a personal question,” asked my mother-in-law Diana.
“Of course,” I replied.
“How did you deal with all that, as a child,” she continued. “Was it hard?”
The “all that” in question was my growing up in a Jewish household that did not celebrate Christmas, in the very least. Did I experience a sadness, a longing, an envy?
It was what it was, I explained. We had Chanukah—as a celebration, not a consolation. And besides, I went on, popular Christmas culture—Frosty and Rudolph and Charlie Brown’s sad little tree—were part of my childhood by virtue of osmosis, both passive and benign.
This exchange came a few hours after my husband Brandon, who is Jewish by conversion, and I were chatting with Diana about how she could best share in her holiday excitement with our two-year-old son Cielo, without crossing or even confusing the line. We are raising Cielo as a Jewish boy in a Jewish home, yet his beloved “Omie” decorates her home for Christmas, makes Christmas cookies and absolutely adores singing along to the Christmas Top 40.
And while Diana would say it’s all in the spirit of “the holidays,” we explained that the distinction was important. Cielo could share in her joy—and even visit to see her decked-out home—as long as he understood that’s Omie does this to celebrate Christmas and we do that to celebrate Chanukah. Not only do we want to define our traditions for our son, but we also do not want them blended into a generic, commercial muddling. Best to call a spade, a spade, or in this instance a dreidel.
The season does raise a tension, in particular for parents and caregivers. On the one hand, we know that it’s our job to instill in our children a sense of identity, both cultural and spiritual. We can do that by making quite clear what matters most to us and how we go about expressing those values or beliefs. And on the other hand, we know that it’s our job to expose our children to the wonders of the diversity in the human experience. We can do that by introducing our kids to others’ traditions and rituals. The balance is tenuous, and influenced, too, by where your family sits in relation to the dominant culture. Christian households might decide to broaden their children’s education. Conversely, Jewish households might feel the need to safeguard their holiday from dilution or absorption. And households that celebrate neither Christmas or Chanukah, contend with a minority experience that is often rendered invisible by the majority.
There are no simple answers, nor are there any “right answers.” Still, I wanted to hear from the experts, those whose job it is to shepherd our kids through the holidays with consideration and intention. And while there was no proverbial bar in the equation, I did reach out to a rabbi, a minister and a teacher to see how they approached this very merry predicament. Here’s what they had to say:
Rabbi Joy Levitt
Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in Manhattan
The first thing to debunk is that Chanukah is a minor holiday. Certainly in the past, as compared to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shavuot, Pesach, yes. Chanukah does not appear in the Bible, and it’s what the rabbis would call a minor holiday. Except, in two places: In Israel, schools are off for 10 days and it’s a gigantic holiday. Partly because Chanukah celebrates a military victory, in a country that needs those kinds of models, or wants them. And it’s gigantic here because of Christmas. When I was growing up, our rabbis would say that no, Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas. But it’s not actually, entirely true. These are both holidays that occur in the deepest, darkest time of the year, when we are all very low. The lights appear and it makes us feel better. The historical overlay that these equinox holidays really celebrate predates Chanukah and Christmas. I would suggest raising your children with a strong identity that says being Jewish is such a special thing, but it’s also not the only special thing. That lots of other people have really important traditions that guide their moral behavior—and these are ours. You can say, there are many paths to the truth, and this is ours. We have different histories, different libraries, different leaders, different ways to worship—but, we all believe in goodness, kindness, the difference between right and wrong. Give your kids a very strong identity and then give them access to other people’s traditions as beautiful.
Monica A. Coleman
Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware, a trained theologian and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church
As a theologian, I say it’s important to remember that holidays are in fact, religion’s holy days. And you should celebrate them religiously, if that is your religion. I found that as a parent, no matter how hard I tried, my kid got the cultural messages of Christmas and Chanukah because she goes to preschool and they talk about it there. We are Kwanzaa celebrators, and my daughter came home one day from school and asked why Chanukah has eight days and Kwanzaa only seven. I answered, Because we are not Jewish. That is not our holy day. Because she doesn’t get a lot of Kwanzaa in her school, I have been reading her Kwanzaa stories since she was tiny. You have to supplement and put a spotlight on what you celebrate. As parents, we have to make sense of these cultural messages our children receive. I am ordained in a historically black church and we also practice West African religion called Ifa. We don’t necessarily talk about “religion” but my daughter knows that we honor our ancestors.
We also celebrate Christmas but I counter the “holiday” messages: I ask my daughter, so, if it’s Jesus’ birthday why are you getting gifts? Instead, we have come up with a tradition of making cupcakes for the baby Jesus. I teach her that Jesus is a teacher and doctor, rather than saying he is a savior and a healer. That God is in Jesus, but also that God is in all of us. One day, my daughter came and asked me to sing her The Twelve Days of Christmas song. I had to Google the lyrics. I mean, I literally got satellite radio to avoid all that.
Paolo Cesar Arango
Head Teacher, 4-5’s Manhattan Country School
Our mission at the school is to embrace diversity and that is throughout the entire spectrum. We talk about all the holidays. We teach them about the history and what they mean. We believe that it is very important that the children are made aware that whatever they choose or whatever way the family chooses to celebrate, there are also different ways that people celebrate. The aim is to inform the children. We are not looking to confuse them or create feelings that one way is better. This year, we will be making latkes, looking at the menorah and lighting the candles. And the following week, we are also going to be making a very traditional Christmas dish from Colombia, buñuelos, and looking at a nativity, talking about Jesus and the Virgin Mary and Joseph. That educational approach continues throughout the calendar, for sure. After these holidays, we will start talking about King’s Day in early January, to inform the children that all the kids with Spanish roots are familiar with this celebration. The children are fascinated—they just want to learn.
The expert advice dovetailed with what we had already been planning for our family this season and reinforced the need to highlight how incredible it is to be Jewish, while also creating a context to see the beauty in other people’s differences. With that in mind, Brandon and I decided that it would be most comfortable for Cielo to experience Omie's holiday when it wasn't the actual holy day. Just recently, he spent a weekend at her home in Connecticut, hanging out with the side of the family who has their trees and lights up. He even decorated a gingerbread house with his cousins. Back at our place, we have been in full Chanukah ramp-up mode since the end of Thanksgiving—books, make-believe menorahs, Star of David-shaped pasta. And Cielo is already gearing up to try his first batch of home-cooked latkes shlepped in from New Jersey by Grandma and Grandpa (my parents) and to spin like a dreidel. He is too young to understand what eight nights of presents might entail, but we are confident that what he will remember most is the warmth of being held by his two Dads as we sing, basking in the reflection of the dancing Chanukah lights.