December 2007

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Chanukah vs. Christmas (Mac vs. PC parody). Director Peter G. Reynolds. ©right; 2006 Finger Crossed Films.

Raising a Mensch

Will Your Hanukkah Survive the Christmas Frenzy?

Raising a non-Christian child in a predominantly Christian country is a constant challenge, but around Christmas, life can get particularly complicated. Since Hanukkah usually falls so close to Christmas, it's tempting for Jewish parents to try to turn it into a similar holiday experience. Yet this can send a confusing message to kids. From Frosty to Santa, the secular symbols of Christmas -- and the magical world they suggest -- are so enticing for children that no matter how hard parents try to twist Hanukkah into a "Jewish Christmas," it comes off as a pale and not very satisfying substitute.

As a result, parents must realize that Hanukkah is a joyous and meaningful holiday that doesn't need wrapping in Christmas tinsel. However, it is not easy for Jewish parents to find effective ways to cope with the secular hoopla that surrounds Christmas. It is very much a part of American life and few children, even non-Christian children, are immune to its lure. There are many ways for families to navigate the commercialism and have a meaningful Hanukkah without turning it into a Jewish Christmas.

Talk about how your family celebrates Hanukkah and tell your children that there are lots of wonderful things about being Jewish, while acknowledging that it is hard at this time of year to be surrounded by Christmas symbols. Children who can avoid being seduced by the glitter and tinsel of Christmas are rare. Even as you remind your children of how glad you are to be Jewish, let them know you understand that it can be hard, especially at this time of year, to be part of a minority culture.

Next, talk to your children about why Christmas appeals to them. See if you can find out exactly what it is about Christmas that your child wants to participate in. Once you know, it will be easier to figure out how to help him or her cope. If children mention decorating christmas trees, remind them that decorating trees isn't a part of Hanukkah and discuss activities which are a part of it. Engage your children in planning for Hanukkah and participating in the holiday preparations. Perhaps your family has friends who have a Christmas tree and your kids can help them decorate it.

In addition, remind your children that Hanukkah is not the "Jewish Christmas." Talk with your kids about the meaning of Hanukkah, about its significance to Judaism, and about the significance of Christmas to Christianity. After that, explain how your family celebrates Hanukkah. For example, if you decide not to exchange gifts at Hanukkah, make sure to explain why. At the same time, you can talk about why you -- and lots of other people -- are unhappy with how commercialized Hanukkah has become. If you are going to exchange gifts, talk with your kids about your feelings about gift-giving, both positive and negative.

Involving your children in the holiday is another great way to interest them in it. Your children's understanding of Hanukkah will evolve as they grow. The more they learn about what the holiday -- and being Jewish -- mean to you, the more they will be able to make their own informed choices about how they want to relate to Judaism as adults. First of all, ask for your children's input in preparing for the holiday. Make sure your children know that you're glad to talk with them about the holidays and the choices you have made. Ask them how they would like to celebrate Hanukkah, but make it clear that asking for input does not mean they will get all of their wishes. There are lots of resources for celebrating Hanukkah meaningfully. If you don't have access to a Jewish bookstore, look through Judaica sections at the library or your local bookstore, or shop online, and discuss these ideas with your children to get their input.

Another thing to keep in mind is that overdoing gifts defeats the purpose of Hanukkah. If you do decide to exchange gifts at Hanukkah, or any other time, make sure that kids are included in the giving and the receiving. Encourage children to make presents and put thought into the gifts that they give. Some Jewish families minimize or eliminate gift-giving during Hanukkah, and concentrate on enjoying the holiday's more traditional pleasures. Elaborate gifts have only become a part of Hanukkah in an attempt to compensate children for not having Christmas. If parents let getting gifts become the main focus of Hanukkah, they may inadvertently diminish the holiday's real meaning for their kids. Instead of focusing on gifts, you may want to read aloud each night. The Spotted Pony, by Eric A. Kimmel (1992, Holiday House, New York) is a wonderful collection of Jewish folk tales to read aloud each night of Hanukkah. Some are funny, some are sad, and all of them appeal to both children and adults.

Some Jewish families choose to ignore Christmas altogether, while others decide to participate in the secular aspects of the holiday by exchanging presents Christmas morning, making gingerbread houses, or going out to look at Christmas lights. Some parents even allow their children to hang stockings and believe in Santa Clause while others designate another day during the season for family gift giving. Whether or not you allow your children to participate in any part of the Christmas season, it is important to teach them about the holiday's religious meaning to Christians. Talking to children about the story of Christmas is a good way to help them think about the similarities and differences between the beliefs of Jews and Christians. These conversations can set the stage for learning about beliefs and holidays of other religions as well.

Finally, an appealing way to help children benefit from living in a multicultural society is to invite non-Jewish friends to join in your Jewish holiday celebrations and, in turn, to celebrate Christmas (and/or other holidays) with your non-Jewish friends. Even at an early age, kids can understand that different people celebrate different holidays and that these celebrations are fun! In conclusion, there are many different ways to make Hanukkah more appealing to children, and it is essential that parents put in extra effort so that children are excited about being Jewish and celebrating Hanukkah instead of feeling left out from Christmas celebrations.

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Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

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