Happy Hanukkah? Kwanzaa Greetings? Why not Merry Christmas? How to talk to kids who don't celebrate Christmas
"Mommy, why do we say Happy Hannukah and not Merry Christmas?" "Mrs. Smith, why does Jenny get a Christmas tree and I don't?" "How come we celebrate Kwanzaa and not Christmas or Hanukkah?" If you have heard these questions, you know just how difficult it is to formulate an appropriate response (usually right on the spot). Growing up Jewish in a predominantly Jewish suburb, while comforting, actually caused me to grow up with blinders; when I reached the University of Illinois I definitely got a rude awakening the first time Christmas sentiment took over the campus. Imagine my surprise to find that Walgreens had NO Hanukkah wrapping paper or cards, yet rows of Christmas cards and paper (I confess this was in the very early 90's and things have somewhat changed since then). I was confused, upset, and was smacked in the face with "Hello, you're in the minority." I wanted wrapping paper saying "Happy Hanukkah," not "Merry Christmas."
To be fair, this did cause me to come up with some very creative gift wrapping ideas, including turning a Christmas tree into a "Hanukkah Bush"! I did not grow up in a religious house, but we did celebrate the "major" Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah (of course!). My Dad, who was 100% Jewish, loved Christmas (that's where I get it from!) and would have had a Christmas tree in our home if my Mom would have allowed it. He even got us stockings knit with Jewish Stars and "Shalom" at the top! Every Christmas morning, even when away on vacation, my sisters and I would wake up to stockings crammed with goodies, and although we shouted "Happy Hanukkah!" we definitely felt and experienced true Christmas sentiment.
Perhaps in some small way, my Dad was answering our unasked question - why didn't we celebrate Christmas? Fast forward to 2014, when Christmas is still celebrated by the majority, but holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwaanza are certainly more recognized and even commonplace. While children who don't celebrate Christmas enjoy their own festivities, it is difficult for many young kids (whether this is typical in America or worldwide, I don't know) to understand why Christmas seems to be "EVERYWHERE" (as my own son put it). Thank you Corporate America! Let's face it, even in my hometown, which is still overwhelmingly Jewish, Target has a small, half row section of Hanukkah items, and rows and rows of Christmas (not to mention the reminders all over the store, from an actual Christmas tree to home goods to clothing adorned with Christmas sentiment hoping to enhance Christmas sales). I don't remember Christmas sentiment when I was a child being as widespread as it is now, but, then again, I grew up in a non-digital age (no internet, iPods, iPads, etc. - GASP)! Kids today simply can't escape being bombarded with Christmas - from t.v. commercials, to iPad apps, to tons of addicting games, movies, toys, and games specifically related to the holiday, what young child wouldn't want to be a part of Christmastime?
And so, unless you are quite lucky, the questions begin: "how come Bobby gets to celebrate Christmas and we don't?"; "why does Hannah get a Christmas tree and get to have lights on her house and we don't?"; "why do people say "Christmas sentiment" but not "Hanukkah sentiment?"; or, my personal favorite, "how does Santa know NOT to come to our house?" My own kids are now 10 and 13, and while they "get" that we are a different religion and celebrate a different holiday, it is still difficult for them to understand why "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is a cult favorite, and why there isn't a comparable movie about Hanukkah Harry or some other dreidel-spinning creature. It is especially difficult when, such as last year, Hanukkah falls well before Christmas (we said our last Happy Hanukkah 2 weeks before Winter Vacation even started last year)! The unrolling of Christmas sentiment was just starting, and we'd already put away the decorations and given out all the gifts.
Heck, as an adult this is somewhat difficult (who likes to be left out?) so I can only imagine how tough it must be for a child. So, what to say to the questions you may get from your own children or students? Personally, I always try to remind my own kids how lucky they are to be Jewish, and how hard their ancestors had to fight for their right to practice Judaism. We all know that kids can be somewhat irrational when something as important as PRESENTS are involved, so when all else fails I tend to go with "well, you get presents for EIGHT days, and people who celebrate Christmas only get presents on ONE." Caveat: as my kids got older and realized their non-Jewish friends got just as much but all at once, this argument lost its effect.
I also like to stress that it is great to learn about other religions and cultures, and tell my kids that I always send out a "Happy Holidays" card rather than a "Happy Hanukkah" or "Merry Christmas" card. Whether we receive Christmas cards, Hanukkah cards, or generic Happy Holidays greetings, I make sure my kids appreciate the sentiment itself, not the holiday with which it is associated. Back to the million dollar question of how to answer your kids' questions. I'm certainly no expert on the subject, so I decided to do a little research of my own. Here is some of what I found...
Question: What other holidays are celebrated at or around the same time as Christmas?
Most people know about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but did you know there are many more celebrations during the months of November and December? For example, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day (a.k.a. Rohatsu) on DEC-8, or on the Sunday immediately preceding. It recalls the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha sat beneath a Bodhi tree -- a type of fig tree -- and is believed to have achieved enlightenment, thus escapeing the repeating cycle of reincarnation: involving birth, life, death and rebirth. A descendent of the original tree is the most important of four holy sites of Buddhism. You can read all about other festivities here.
A nice slideshow highlighting the differences between holidays
Question: What should I tell children who don't celebrate Christmas about Santa Claus?
My biggest concern here, especially when my kids were very young, was ruining another child's belief in Santa. I always made it very clear that while we don't celebrate Christmas, that doesn't mean that Santa doesn't exist, just that he is not part of the holiday that we celebrate. This prevents my kids from telling their non-Jewish friends that "Santa isn't real." For the little ones it doesn't hurt to point out Santa on Christmas cards, etc. and exclaim "see, if he wasn't real why would he be on Christmas cards?" You can read some additional responses to this question here.
Question: How should I handle the Christmas overload that encompasses this time of year?
If I tried to pretend that corporate America doesn't play a role in Christmas, I'd only be fooling myself. From media to store displays, we are simply bombarded with Christmas (and it seems to start earlier every year). Therapist (and Jew), Wendy Mogel, has a great response to this question:
The received wisdom for Jewish parents is not to dilute, pollute or mix traditions. Christmas is such a joy bully, if you let any of it in the door, Chanukah will be blown out the window. But just as Republicans don't own family values, Christians haven't appropriated winter gladness and glitter.
An alternative to Christmaphobia is to be relaxed and expansive. We don't want the children to be ashamed of their longing or to have to hide their pleasure. Instead, let's call a magnificent holiday a magnificent holiday, and let our minor holiday be minor. Have a festive Chanukah party, but think about making a gingerbread house, driving around to look at the decorations, choosing your favorite house. Serve eggnog and decorate cookies at home.
You can read more from Ms. Mogel here.
Jewish Mom Linda Altman suggests:
Christmas is a good time to discuss diversity with your children. It is a fabulous time to reaffirm your family's beliefs and values with them. Let your children know how you feel about this religious holiday being a national holiday and take a good look at all of the media hype around it. You can discuss if it is really a religious holiday anymore, or has it become a retail holiday like Mother's Day.Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/1550094
Brief History of Kwanzaa
Question: Why don't we have a Christmas Tree?
Obviously (to an adult) no Christmas means no Christmas tree, but try explaining this to a child. Click here for a great article by a mom faced with this dilemma. Here is my favorite quote from this article:
"When you are big, you can have a tree in your house," I said.
Here is another great post on the Christmas Tree subject. I love how the author discovers that it wasn't the TREE her young son desired, but the feeling, or spirit, of the holiday. This goes back to my feeling about Christmas cards versus generic holiday cards - who cares WHAT they say, but HOW the sentiment is shared!
I've shared my own thoughts about this topic, but I would love to hear yours! Please share your experiences with the issue and how you answered your inquisitive little angels! I'll be here waiting and wondering, listening to my Christmas Music (I wait ALL year to be able to enjoy it for a month, and yes, my kids and husband do make fun but I don't care). Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, Happy EVERYTHING!!!!!!!