A couple of weeks ago, my three-year-old son noticed that our neighbours had put up their Christmas lights. His eyes widened as he gazed in awe at the many colourful bulbs lighting up the cold, dark night. “We have to put our lights up!” he proclaimed. I replied with something along the lines of “Yeah, uh, let’s go inside for dinner,” realizing that I was ill prepared for the conversation where I explain to my child that we are Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas. After scouring the internet for articles and talking to other parents who are in the same boat, I came up with a list of tips for how to deal with Christmas when you don’t do Christmas.
1. Let books do the work for you
Books are always a helpful way to introduce tricky concepts to kids, and I soon learned that the dilemma I was facing could be addressed by heading to my local library. Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein was written by actress Amanda Peet, based on her experience with her own children. The book celebrates embracing other cultures and their traditions while encouraging kids to be proud of their own religious identities.
2. Keep it simple
When dealing with little kids who have big questions, a straightforward answer is often the best one. Instead of delving into an hour-long history lesson on the birth of Jesus and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, try saying something like “People celebrate different holidays: Some people celebrate Christmas, but our family celebrates Hanukkah.” Easy-peasy.
3. Focus on your culture’s customs and traditions
We might not have Santa or hundreds of radio-friendly songs written about our holiday, but we have fried potato latkes and glowing menorahs, which are pretty awesome in their own right. And don’t forget the rest of the year. Hanukkah is, in fact, a minor religious holiday compared to other holy days observed by Jewish people. Instead of trying to make Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas,” celebrate the many holidays that take place throughout the year so that your kid understands the bigger picture of who they are.
4. Celebrate with friends from different backgrounds
Ask a friend if you can help decorate their tree or join in while they bake Christmas cookies. Invite them over to participate in one of your own holiday rituals and teach them about the meaning behind what you’re doing. Your kid will get a lesson in appreciating diversity and you might walk away with a tin full of buttery shortbread straight out of the oven. Everyone wins with this approach.
5. Show them it’s OK to still enjoy the festive season
Thinking you’ll just ignore Christmas and pretend it doesn’t exist? Good luck with that. Christmas is, quite literally, everywhere you go, but don’t fret: The holiday season has something for everyone to enjoy, regardless of your religious or non-religious beliefs. Take a trip downtown to marvel at the department-store window displays, find the most spectacularly lit houses in your neighbourhood or watch Home Alone for the millionth time. Focus on the cozy feeling of the season and time spent with loved ones instead of making it all about Christmas.
6. Explain Santa
One of the hardest things for kids who don’t celebrate Christmas to understand is why Santa won’t be coming down their chimneys—ever. If your kid is great at keeping secrets, you could attempt an honest explanation of Santa as a fictitious character and hope that they don’t spoil the fun for their friends. But we all know kids are eager to spill the beans, so proceed with caution. A better approach might be to tell the truth without delving into all the details. Once again, simplicity is your friend here. You can say something like “People who celebrate Christmas believe in Santa; we don’t believe in Santa, but we have our own fun traditions.” (I have yet to think of a Jewish figure that’s equivalent to Santa, but if anyone comes up with something, I’m all ears.)
7. Create your own Christmas rituals
Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can still start your own traditions. Consider the old Jewish family standby of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve or heading to the movie theatre to see the latest Oscar contender on Christmas Day. If you create an annual tradition with your family, your kid can look forward to Christmas rather than feel like they’re stuck watching the game from the sidelines.
8. Instill a sense of pride in your child
Whatever you and your family believe (or don’t believe), cultivate an appreciation for your unique heritage whenever the opportunity arises. Regardless of what tactics I employ, my son will ultimately have to face the fact that being Jewish means that no Christmas lights will be hanging from our roof. But he’ll also learn that it means we light Shabbat candles every Friday night, dip apples in honey for a sweet new year, put our loose change in a special box to give to charity and, perhaps most importantly, always know the closest place to find a decent bagel.