We’re going to my grandmother’s house for Christmas. My grandmother is Jewish, but there will be a Christmas tree in her living room right next to the menorah. The tree isn’t a symbol of faith; it’s a relic of a time when Jews worked hard to assimilate, and it has become a beautiful addition to our yearly holiday reunion.
This year Christmas poses a new opportunity for our family. My older daughter is 3, and she’s already asking about the Christmas lights in our neighborhood. We won’t have a tree in our home and she’s going to want to know why. I’m anticipating questions about Santa soon, although we have managed to avoid those thus far by staying away from the mall. (This is a good rule to follow until well after Christmas, regardless of your religious beliefs).
I won’t lie; I’m jealous of parents who can use Santa as leverage for good behavior—I would love to tell my daughter that the reason Mr. Claus isn’t coming to our house is because of that monster tantrum she threw at the Science Museum last weekend, but I’m not going to do it. I’m also not going to tell her that Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas. Yes, the timing is right, and your family may exchange gifts, but the reality is that Chanukah is unlikely to measure up, with good reason. Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, and never has been. It is a beautiful celebration of time, light, and miracles, but it’s no Christmas.
Instead, my husband and I are going to figure out what our line in the sand (or shall I say snow?) is, and what we want to tell our daughters. Yes, we’re going to a Christmas party at Grandma’s, but we won’t have a tree at home. No, Santa won’t be coming to our house, because he is part of Christmas and we don’t celebrate Christmas. We’ll explain that different families have different holidays, and that it’s kind of like going to a friend’s birthday party—it’s not our birthday, but we can still enjoy it with our friends. We’ll talk about how we’re Jewish, so we get to celebrate Chanukah with music and latkes and dreidels and parties with friends. Soon we’ll have Tu Bishvat and then Purim and before we know it, it will be time for Passover, and of course, every week we have Shabbat.
My daughters may be sad or upset when they learn that Christmas isn’t a Jewish holiday, that it isn’t our holiday. That’s part of growing up Jewish in America–it’s not always easy, but our job as parents raising Jewish children is to make it meaningful. So, we’ll talk about Santa and Christmas and sometimes those conversations will be hard, but they are important. Then we’ll light some candles, eat some latkes, and be grateful for the miracle of a pluralistic society, one where we can enjoy our neighbors’ holidays while still celebrating our own.