I never thought it would happen to me. We observe Shabbat and all the holidays, send our children to Jewish preschool, watch Disney movies in Hebrew – and I’m even a rabbi! But, the other day, my three-and-a-half year old daughter looked at me and said, “Abba, I love Christmas!” Gevalt!
The truth is, how could she not? My wife and I chose to live in America, not Israel. In America you can’t turn on the TV, go shopping, or even drive around the neighborhood without encountering Christmas songs, decorations, or Santa himself. Our American culture is saturated by Christmas at this time of year. Unless one chooses to totally cut themselves off from the larger culture, it is inevitable that our children will encounter Christmas. So how do we as parents respond?
Dr. Ron Wolfson writes that the guiding principle in response to the so-called “December Dilemma” that we, Diaspora Jews, face is appreciation and not appropriation. It’s fine to appreciate the decorations and songs of Christmas, but we must be clear with our children that they are not ours – they belong to someone else. It’s like when you take your child to a friend’s birthday party. We explain that the birthday boy or girls gets presents because it is their birthday. We can like the gifts, but we don’t take them home. They are not ours. Children come to understand this after going to a few birthday parties, and it might take a few Christmases to drive this point home: we can appreciate something, but that doesn’t mean we need to make it our own.
This, however, requires a delicate balance. It’s a quick jump from appreciating a Christmas display to arguing with your child about sitting on Santa’s lap. But if we want our children to be firm in their own Jewish identity, we need to be firm with its boundaries. It is good to teach tolerance and appreciation of other religions, but in addition to that we need to help our children find meaning in their own religion.
Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish year that has become major because of its timing. It allows us to counterbalance the 12 days of Christmas with the eight nights of Hanukkah. But we have many other holidays as well – each with its own unique traditions and practices. Our holidays provide us with a rhythm and curriculum over the course of the year. Passover, Yom Ha'atzmaut, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah – they help us pass on our history and our practices to the next generation. And we can’t forget our weekly celebration of Shabbat!
Hanukkah comes in the midst of this cycle, and teaches us about the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple. That’s just one piece of our history that becomes more meaningful when we understand it in the broader context of our holidays.
So how did I respond to my daughter’s comment? I asked what she loved about Christmas. “Yes,” I agreed, “the lights on the houses are pretty.” But, I explained, we don’t do that because we’re Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah and Shabbat and Passover and so many other holidays where we get to spin dreidels, light Hanukiyot, sing Shabbat songs, and have a Passover Seder. “Don’t you love doing all of those things?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “We don’t have Christmas.” I exhaled – safe for another year.
I’m sure as my children get older more issues and questions will come up. But, regardless of the season, the best answer we can give them is living a Jewish life all year round.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
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