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This time of year, I often find myself answering questions about the “December Dilemma.” As an intermarried-child-of-intermarriage, people want to know how I handle this tricky season, when Christmas and Hanukkah compete for our attention, and pine trees threaten to darken our doors. After all, I’ve been experiencing this for two generations myself. Haven’t I learned something in all that time?
I do have an answer, actually, but it’s a radical notion—that in fact, there’s no such thing as the December Dilemma. Or rather, that this is a problem we’ve created for ourselves, out of anxiety and insecurity.
If this is the case, the obvious solution to our problem is to release that anxiety and turn our attention to enjoying our own distinct holiday, to making Hanukkah a resonant, meaningful season. Just as we do with Passover or Sukkot. When we aren’t measuring ourselves against jingle bells and candy canes.
But how do we do that?
For years I tried to make Hanukkah appealing to my kids. Since they often spend Christmas with their Catholic grandparents, and receive copious gifts as a result, my instinct was to try to match that particular kind of childhood joy. I didn’t concoct a Jewish Santa, but I did spend money. I bought and wrapped loads of presents, filled bowls with gelt and dreidels. I bought twinkly lights shaped like stars of David. I wanted Hanukkah to outshine Christmas in my children’s memories.
You know what? It didn’t work. Not because the presents weren’t appreciated, but because that’s not the point of Hanukkah. That store-bought abundance* didn’t feel organic or authentic to anyone. Eight days is a long time to slog through that brassy sort of cheer, and also, only Santa is Santa. Pale comparisons are just that. No menorah will dim the presence of a tree in the corner, or the inundation our kids feel from the outside world—the endcap displays at Target, the aisles of red and green candy at the grocery store. Every year we all feel a little let down by Hanukkah. Don’t we?
So last year, I asked myself a question—why does this holiday matter? I asked myself what there was to love about Hanukkah. If it isn’t a runner-up week of gifts and gelt, what’s the actual point? I tried to remember what had mattered to me about Hanukkah, as a kid. What were my best Hanukkah memories?
When I did, I found that every single one was a memory of the dinner table or the kitchen. Of my dad grating his knuckles year after year, making latkes. Of my sisters and brothers teasing each other when we unwrapped boring gifts like dried fruit or clothes. Of the smoke alarm going off. Of drinking wine and idly spinning dreidels on a crumb-covered tablecloth, as we caught up with each other’s college-age lives.
You see, the beauty of Hanukkah is this—if we actually celebrate it, it affords us eight consecutive nights to slow down and focus on the little things, the personal, the mundane. Hanukkah forces us to look into each other’s eyes every night for a week, and connect. To wait until the candles have burned down to wash the dishes or check email.
This is a miracle, honestly, in today’s world. What other holiday accomplishes that sort of slowdown? There’s no pressure to perform Hanukkah. There’s no long synagogue service or requirement that you take time off school or work. You don’t have to dress up or make a fancy meal. You only have to spend an hour every night loving your family and friends fully. Being aware of them.
So last year, we did something radical at our house. We opted out of the December Dilemma. We didn’t spend money. We didn’t throw a party. We didn’t travel. We didn’t compete with Christmas at all, and the result was mindblowing. It was actually a little bit painful to register the shock in my kids’ faces when neither my husband nor I hurried away from dinner to make a phone call or wrap up a little work.
We skipped cub scouts and book club that week. We didn’t go the gym. If homework hadn’t been done by dinner, it wasn’t going to get done. For eight nights, we prioritized only each other, and it was moving to see how deeply that resonated with my kids—to see that they totally got it. We played dumb board games and ate popcorn. One night we watched a movie together, and I know it sounds cheesy, but I can’t remember a calmer, happier week in our household. The kids have been talking about it ever since. They can’t wait for this year.
Here’s the thing—you can only lose a battle you choose to fight. Christmas won’t stop being Christmas, whether you have a tree or not. Christmas won’t stop being an abundant overblown season of candy wrapped in tinsel. If the way we measure joy is in candy, Christmas wins every time.
But that’s only one kind of currency, and if we measure joy in calm pleasure, in togetherness, in slowness, in conversation and low-stress fun, Hanukkah resonates differently. It matters. It becomes real.
Think about light—there are fireworks in the world, and then there are fireplaces. Both are illuminating. But they meet different needs. If you measure the cheery glow of a fireplace against the bombastic blaze of fireworks, you’ll be disappointed. But if you stare deep into the hearth, accept it on its own terms, and warm your hands, you can’t help but see its distinct beauty. You can’t help but recognize how much you need it.
*the author would like to recognize that plenty of Christians struggle with this issue too, and that for many people, the real spirit of Christmas has nothing to do with the “holiday shopping season.”
We tend to ask our children the same questions over and over which are super hard to answer. Educators and parents ask, “What are you thankful for?” This questions is asked repeatedly around Thanksgiving time. Children say, “my parents, my home, food, friends and toys.”
Ask your child now. What did he or she say? A parent volunteer told me that when the librarian asked the kids this question, my 6-year-old said, “the solar system.” That was an unusual answer. I’m not sure where that one came from. Maybe there was a poster of outer-space or a book nearby that caught her eye?
There is nothing wrong with this question but it is very hard to tap into real feelings of gratitude, appreciation and thanks and then to be able to articulate those feelings. Sometimes I ask my kids what makes them happy and that seems easier for them to talk about. Gratitude has to be cultivated and modeled.
As we move into the Hanukkah and Christmas season, I asked my 6-year-old and 8-year-old what they know about these holidays. You would think that being children of two rabbis and living in a heavily Jewish suburb would sway or weight their answers some. Yet, they love their idea of Christmas even though they have had limited personal experience with it (much to their chagrin).
When I asked them what they think about when I say the word, “Christmas” they beamed with joy, lit up and said, “presents!” Now, my pastor friends and practicing Christians may be cringing. These are not the holy parts of this holiday. In addition, these are children who have lots of stuff. They are not lacking for presents. However, the idea of getting a gift is ever thrilling.
They don’t have much first-hand experience with a religious and/or a cultural Christmas. (Hopefully their experiences will vary and multiply as they get older and they will come to value volunteering during the time of darkness and need for so many, and will be inclined to cherish the priceless and precious gifts of time and presence more than material things). Their ideas about Christmas fun come primarily from TV and I’m not sure where else.
Then I asked them to tell me about Hanukkah. They said lighting the menorah and presents are what come to mind. My children don’t like latkes. Or matzah ball soup, lox or noodle kugel. I know, it’s just wrong, but I’m being as honest as possible here. They do like Elf on the Shelf, Christmas cookies and the lights, beauty and magic of Christmas.
When I reminded them and gave hints, they were able to conjure up details about the miracle of the oil lasting and about the re-dedication of the Temple. They know the role of the shamash, or helper candle that lights the other ones. They know how to play dreidel and play it with zeal. They love games! They love getting together with friends and family over Hanukkah. They sing Hanukkah songs and enjoy going to synagogue where each family lights a menorah and it glows with warmth and love.
I don’t think my children are more spoiled or more materialistic than others. They love life, and they love surprises and being playful. They love their friends, feel connected to their family and enjoy school and learning. They generally are into things.
Am I worried that my children—who I hope will look to Judaism to give them order, meaning, sacred purpose, connectedness, hope, values, inspiration, pride, and so much more—love aspects of Christmas? No, not one bit. I do want them to be literate in tenets of Christianity too. I want them to know more about Jesus. They will learn history as they mature and will have context and gain perspective and understanding. I don’t want them to feel threatened by Christianity and Christmas. I want them to be able to ask their own questions and take Christian theology and beliefs seriously. I want them to understand that there is religion and there is culture and there is secularism, and how each of these aspects inform a person’s expression. I don’t ever want Hanukkah and Christmas to compete.
I think that making a child raised with Judaism feel badly about liking Christmas is not a great approach. It won’t create closeness with Judaism. The main thing is to keep asking our children what they think and teaching our children as much as we can so that they can create well-rounded notions of these two holidays, central to our American psyche. Knowledge is good. Not being shamed for loving parts of another religion’s holidays is good.
Let’s stop asking rote questions and expecting rote answers. Your kids will tell you what they honestly know and think and it will open your eyes to their little developing souls.