It’s that time of year again — time for me to navigate Christmas as the Jewish parent of three little ones.
The first few years of new parenthood around the holiday season felt dicey because while my oldest clearly identified as Jewish, it felt like a lot to ask a 4-year-old to correct an adult Merry Christmas well-wisher with “I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
It felt like we were intentionally shutting down the good cheer, but now I realize I was projecting my own feelings of discomfort and internal conflict onto the situation. How do I explain Christmas cheer to my toddlers without making it feel like Hanukkah is a sad consolation holiday?
Thankfully, being a Jewish mom in a world of Christmas cheer feels easier every year. My oldest is 7 years old and I am very comfortable discussing that while we may not celebrate the same holidays as our friends, we can certainly share in the joy and participate in their traditions, and vice versa.
Much like my daughters now, I grew up as the Jewish minority in my town, classroom and amongst my group of friends. Rather than feel like odd man out, it was something I found pride in. I felt special and my friends loved celebrating the festival of lights for eight days — and they shared their traditions with me.
Therefore, I know my way around pine needles and a nativity scene because I grew up decorating my childhood best friend’s tree with her every year. Unwrapping precious family heirloom ornaments and finding the perfect spot for them on the tree warms my heart and takes me back to my own childhood nostalgia.
I want my kids to have similar fond Christmastime memories. So, as an adult, I have now made it a tradition to help our friends decorate their Christmas tree (I basically invite my family over for a tree-trimming party the day after Thanksgiving). Also, as a teenager, my best friends and I baked massive batches of holiday cookies together, so now I love the cookie swap I organize with my local mom friends.
As a parent and in keeping with the spirit of sharing seasonal joy and cheer, I make it a habit to offer my daughters’ public school teachers and their friends a chance to celebrate with us. I typically visit their classrooms with a menorah or two to pass around, and dreidels for their classmates to take home. I read a children’s book and share our holiday traditions.
Additionally, we invite friends over on one of the nights of Hanukkah to eat latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (doughnuts), light the menorah and spin the dreidel together. No other holiday (to my knowledge) has doughnuts as a menu must-have, so it’s always a lot of fun.
Overall, the theme of the season is inclusion, sharing traditions and having a good time together.
In years past, I felt stress and anxiety rise whenever my kids were mistaken for kids who may be creating a long wish list for Santa. Happily, my internal tension has eased significantly. Last Friday (yes, just the day after Thanksgiving), we attended a Christmas tree-trimming brunch at our friends’ house, then ended the day by attending Stan Hywet Hall’s “Deck the Hall” holiday tour.
Stan Hywet once again outdid itself, and our visit was capped with popcorn and a giant pretzel (the line for the gingerbread cookies was too long) while waiting in line to have a visit with Santa. My 7-year-old declined chatting with Santa, but my twin 5-year-olds were as thrilled as if they were meeting Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Santa took a long time chatting with them and asked about Christmas and I had no problem at all gently saying, “Oh Santa, we celebrate Hanukkah.” He was incredibly gracious and continued the conversation without skipping a beat, offering them a candy cane treat, thanking them for the warm hugs and wishing them a wonderful night.
What I realize (sadly it took me this long) is that we make a big deal out of the stuff we want to make a big deal out of. We are Jewish and we lovingly correct others when they wish us a Merry Christmas. It’s not a problem — even Santa didn’t bat an eye.
So, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and happy holidays to all.