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Santa Pause

What are Jewish parents to do when every show on television drips with Christmas cheer? Here are four strategies for managing your children’s expectations in this most un-Jewish time of year.

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(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; TV: Megan Morris/Flickr; remote: John Lobel/Flickr)

Maxine, my 5-year-old, was home sick last week, dripping snot and hacking like a two-pack-a-day smoker in Boca. I drugged her up, plunked her down on the couch, wrapped her in a blanket, and put on Nick Jr. (Don’t judge.) As I sat with my laptop in the next room, I could hear an endless succession of ho-ho-hos and jingling bells. Dora’s ice-pick voice stabbed my brain: Swiper! Give that present back to Santa, por favor!

Every show on children’s television seemed to feature chirpy efforts to rescue Santa or induce some animated sourpuss to feel the spirit of Christmas. Before long Maxine was pouting, “Where is Hanukkah? Why is there no Hanukkah on these shows?”

“Because we live in a country that is mostly Christian,” I told her. “Hanukkah isn’t a major holiday for us, anyway—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot—those are a way bigger deal.” I started to explain that Hanukkah has turned into a whole megillah in the United States because of its proximity to Christmas, but Maxie just wanted to watch Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends.

Just as well. It’s not as if my answer was very satisfying.

That night, Maxie had some chicken soup, then she and her older sister Josie and I watched Glee. (I told you not to judge.) Maxie gazed wide-eyed as Britney the dumb cheerleader sat on Santa’s lap and told him that for Christmas, she wanted her wheelchair-using boyfriend Artie to walk. She yelled at the screen, “You can do it, Santa!” Josie and I gulped and looked at each other.

We sat Maxie down and explained that Santa was not real. But the kid insisted. “If you just believe in him,” she said, “he can help you.” I told her that Santa was an idea, a jolly symbol of kindness and harmony for our friends who are Christians, but not a real or powerful figure. She seemed unconvinced, and I went on thinking about the very different ways Jewish parents can address life during Christmastime:

Attitude No.1: The Blackout

Dora and Miss Spider are not invited into the home. Shalom Sesame is on an endless loop. There is no need for Hanukkah to compete with Christmas, because Christmas is not a factor. This attitude is hard to sustain halfway; it generally works better to commit year-round. Kids know when you’re uncomfortable, so suddenly insisting on pop-culture withdrawal the day after Thanksgiving is likely to bring up some thorny questions. In many ways it’s easier to pull the full Borough Park—keep the goyish world at a general remove year-round rather than trying to disengage from secular culture only in December.

Attitude No. 2: The Buy-In

Let’s get a Christmas tree! Christmas is really more about peace on earth and goodwill toward men than about religion! And the Christmas tree is really just a Hanukkah bush! And the kids look so cute on Santa’s lap! And even though he converted/even though she’s an atheist, Christmas is a lovely cultural tradition from my spouse’s childhood, and I don’t really feel right taking it away! It’s not like you can lock the real world out, you know?

Attitude No. 3: The Competitive Condescension

It’s way better to be Jewish because you get eight days of presents instead of one! Your friends are secretly really jealous! Jesus was a Jew! Don’t tell your classmates that Santa isn’t real because it will upset them, but you and I know he’s just a silly myth! (The same, of course, isn’t true of the tooth fairy. She’s legit.)

Attitude No. 4: The Dance of Ambivalence

Sure, we love to go look at the lights in the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and gape at Clopper the Donkey in the enormous Christmas display at the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts. We’ll even help our friends trim their tree. But over and over we stress that it’s not our holiday. It’s normal to feel a little left out at Christmastime, but pretending it’s a secular holiday or puffing Hanukkah up to Christmas dimensions isn’t a solution. In fact, this is a good opportunity to talk about the commercialization of our culture. You know, Christmas isn’t a celebration of candy canes and thermonuclear reindeer and velvet bows and nebulous warm feelings. It’s the commemoration of the birth of a god. That’s a pretty big deal, and something that too many people forget. Some Christians are upset that Christmas has become this celebration of buying stuff and having parties rather than a serious opportunity to think about their faith, and—hey, wake up; I’m not done moralizing.

Becoming a parent is the impetus for a lot of us to examine some tangled and heretofore left-alone feelings about being a minority (albeit a minority that often doesn’t feel like a minority and often isn’t considered a minority) in a majority culture. Whether we marry Jews or non-Jews, many of us really don’t think through exactly how we’re going to do Judaism and secularism in the great big world. But when you have a kid, you have to make the call. Not deciding isn’t a decision.

As my (non-Jewish) friend Joe pointed out, this holiday is a fascinating opportunity to eat Chinese food and ponder a culture in which Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow can have top-selling Christmas albums and in which the biggest musical Christmas hits of all time were written by Jews. It’s the perfect chance to think about our strange middle ground as consummate insiders and consummate outsiders. Sure, government offices are closed on Christmas, but Hollywood’s biggest movies are all open, Hollywood being yet another thing our people run.

And you remember how that episode of Glee ended, right? Artie did walk, with the help of a robotic exoskeleton designed by Israeli scientists.

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Your article is very interesting but, even though we should be people of love and respect towards others and their ideas, christmas is a pagan holiday and we as jews need to be reminded that we are supposed to be the light of the world, unique and different so they world can see who is the only one true living G-d HSM. We cannot keep like many jews are doing jeopardising our jewish heritage and are being blended in with the goy. I love everybody, have friends from many different backgrounds and religions,but I never celebrate or put at stake my jewish inheritance for anything or anyone.
There are ways of teaching our children for the sake of the future of the jewish people the difference and why we should not celebrate this or other celebrations that the non jewish people do.

The conventional wisdom in the UK was that Jewish businesses should take every penny they could from the Christian neighbours in December and then gather on the morning of the 25th and sing a verse of “What a friend we have in Jesus”

Jesus was a Jewish reformed Rabbi so unless you are frum then who cares. He was also a socialist.

We stuck with #4, and said offspring is now 18 and very cheerful, unambivalent and not confused during the Winter holidays :)

We as jews are supposed to be the light of the world, the ones that proclaim and maintain that there is only one G-d. the Christians believe that their messiah will not return until all jews are converted to christianism. they have even adopted jewish customs in their churches and are careful how they talk to confuse the jews that unfortunately have strayed away from Torah or have not been raised in a total jewish way. This saddens my heart. We are loosing our rich and wonderful jewish inheritance. It is nice to help out other but not to be assimilated with their beliefs. Jesus is not our messiah and we should not participate in such things.

Scott Sperling says:

Nearly 30 years ago, in a mall far, far away, a Santa was making his rounds. He leaned over to my then 4 year old daughter and said, “Merry Christmas, little girl!” She replied, “We don’t celebrate Christmas, we’re Jewish!”
For whatever it’s worth, we also were very much in the #4 camp and had many complicated discussions with our kids about this topic. I am convinced that this is part of the reason that they are comfortable with their Jewish identities and their place in this complicated world.

Mr. Weberman – I am a Jewish Reform rabbi and I can guarantee you that no one in my congregation thinks that I am the messiah. Some are not so sure about the socialist stuff, though.

Mark Polis, MD says:

My own feeling is that we ought to teach our children to respect and learn about others of different faiths and to enjoy seeing them celebrating their important holidays, just as we should celebrate ours. No feeling of being “left out’ or alienation should play any part in this.

America is a predominantly Christian nation, founded on predominantly Christian principles but making special allowance for inclusion and tolerance and freedom of religion.
I have always enjoyed being a Jew in a tolerant Christian nation. Saying it isn’t won’t change history nor the demographic facts.

The fact that Irving Berlin or any Jew had to do with some famous Christian songs, or that Israel invented the robotic exoskeleton is petty and has a negative connotation. That attitude is not appreciated by most Christians and transmits the wrong message to our children. Our contributions should be offered with humility.

In summary, don’t seek ploys to get your children under the net – discuss things with them and imbue them with a bigger picture. Their Jewish pride will be linked with self-worth, understanding and dignity.

@Irit: I think it is insulting to non-Jews to insist that Christmas is a pagan holiday. To Christians, it is the birth of their lord, a most unpagan event. But I do absolutely agree with you that “Jesus is not our messiah and we should not participate in such things.” We have our own traditions and beliefs and those should be enough.

Also, I am always concerned when people say Jesus was a Jew as if that makes us better than “them” or we think it will make “them” respect us more. Jesus may have lived and died a Jew but I think it is only in our heads that it makes a difference.

Jennifer G says:

I believed in Santa. I believed Santa came down my chimney, saw no tree and a menorah on the kitchen table and said to himself “Oh, they’re Jewish. Their parents love them and get presents for Channukah. I have to go next door.”

That doesn’t explain why I was the only person I knew that actually had a chimney but it helped.

A very well-written piece. As usual.

We too are in Camp #4. We don’t pretend that Christmas isn’t happening nor do we celebrate it. Sure, every single kids’ show has a Christmas episode. Sometimes our kids like watching; some days they feel it’s overwhelming. All the while, we continue to embrace Judaism and the myriad of ways it enriches our daily lives.

“…dripping snot and hacking like a two-pack-a-day smoker in Boca…”

hmmm, a tad offensive Marj

Joyce Gilbert says:

My experiences are similar to those of Rabbi Sperlings. My children were always comfortable and knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage and had no problem announcing in school (when the holiday songs were sung) “We are Jewish and we have a holiday at this time of year called Hanukkah” and then enjoying singing with everyone else.

Rabbis are not immune from living in small towns consumed with Christmas cheer – here’s my piece on our family’s December Dilemma this year – 21st Century Judaism is easier in many ways than ever before, and thus brings up new conversations too.

Bernice says:

Thank you Mark Polls for your sensible comment!
For this non American reader, however, could somebody please explain the meaning of camp#4?

JCarpenter says:

So much of Christmas celebration is divorced from the Christian religious reason—get outside the church or cathedral during Advent, Christmas Eve/Day, and Epiphany, and the party is either historic/cultural with N. European overtones, or Americanized into a winter festival. Jesus might even get a spot on the lawn with his parents and a stray shepherd or two, next to all the gingerbread and inflatable snow-globes, lighted deer and Santa on the roof next to a penguin. I think the universal “pagan” concept is the subtext—eschew the darkness, embrace the light, in all ways both are encountered.
Camp #4 works for Christians as well, especially those who believe in a God of miracles and light and who appreciate and honor Jewish neighbors’ reasons for their seasons of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, Hanukkah . . . .
My late father, not a rabbi, but wise enough told me often to “brighten the corner where you are” which I assume means “join the party, bring lots of Light, and Love, and Peace”—help throw it, help clean up, chip in on the bill—serve God and love your neighbor.

Fabulously written, funny, substantive article. I read much of it out loud to my adolescent daughters as I was reading. I especially liked the parenthetical admonitions not to judge the tv watching. I think it gets easier as the kids get older. The formation of identity takes time.

D'rorah says:

Let’s not lump all “Christians” into the same category. Not all those who believe Jesus is Messiah are involved in celebrating pagan holidays. Pagan is pagan is pagan, frum or not. Let’s not be so condescending as to think that all Christians are blind to the fact that Christmas existed long before Jesus and had nothing to do with his birth. It was practiced, as was easter, by pagans previously and THEN embraced by mainstream Christianity as a means of increasing adherents. While views on Messiah may differ, there are some Christians who are more aware than others. For me, the fact that so many of us use Hanukkah as a substitute for Christmas is at least as offensive as being inundated by all the pagan stuff. By the way, I thought “dripping snot and hacking like a two-pack-a-day smoker in Boca” was hysterical. Sorry, Wendy ;)

Rivka Shepard says:

Every time I hear about Christmas (or Easter) being a pagan holiday, it’s from “wannabe Jews”, gentiles who are not happy with their Christian faith and all of a sudden want to be Torah observant (they keep kashrut yet the women don’t leave the camp during their menstrual cycle, etc). They are a bunch of folks using Jewish names with not an ounce of Jewish blood in their linage, wanting to keep a foot in the gentile and jewish world and don’t understand either one.

Next season, why not teach your children to share with Christian children that we celebrate a holiday to remember the cleansing of the Temple that their Messiah visited and preached and teached in. Jesus was a Jew, and helping Gentile children understand Jewish things builds a bridge between the Christian and Jewish groups, makes our children proud of their heritage, and stops our children from having to feel a need to hide or be ashamed of who they are OR scared of any other’s religions holiday! Especially one that celebrates the birth of a very famous Jew!

For some years i have been interested in the historical events associated with the birth of christianity out of its jewish roots, as well as the events in our ancient jewish past, including the substantially political roots of chanukah. Assuring that your children understand, at whatever level of understanding they are resdy for, is in my opinion the sensible thing to try. It dors mean educating oneself in how we all got from there to here, but is immensely satisfying. In addition it is also the way in which most theologians, christian and jewish alike, understand the relation between judaism and chritianity. Try it, you’ll like it. The issues raised here will simply disappear as your knowledge and comfort with the complex past increases.Thanks for the effort.

did you hear the one about the Xmas people who sneaked into a…church!!!

AnnJ Soffer says:

I’m lucky, our local Jewish camp has a five day overnight that falls during Christmas. A Jewish dose for them, a break for me!

Moshe Pesach Geller says:

It’s really very simple to avoid the conflict forever: Bring your children up to be fully, completely who they are: Jews. If they don’t know their language, they really not much at all. If they can’t read the siddur, they can’t know what is ours. If they don’t know the word ‘Chumash’ then they an’t know what’s in it. If they don’t have a substantial and substansive ownership of their anient tribal traditions, the wisdom of the ancestors nor an authentic connection to their tribal Homeland, then they are doomed to rootlenss.

Education is critical and not the sham of ‘Hebrew’ school that has driven away 8 out of every 10 kids after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

And of ourse, their is the permanent solution: Make it a non-issue, COME HOME!!!!!!!!! And if you don’t know what I mean by that, well, why are you even reading this?

I greatly agree with Moshe. If you educate your children and involve them in Judaism (more than just sending them to Hebrew school), they can see all the Christmas specials in the world and it shouldn’t make a difference in their faith. Rudolph won’t convert a Jewish child to Christianity, but a lack of understanding or involvement in their history and faith will. Don’t compete with Christmas, but educate your child on what it is. Many children celebrate Halloween and never become Wicans, Satanists, or Christians. If your children are raised to be proud of their Jewish heritage and to understand the importance of the Torah, they will see Christmas as a holiday but not their Holy Day. Remember, there’s no reason to compete with Christmas…we were chosen by haShem, and that should make anyone feel warmer than a fireplace with stockings hung on it.

Successful religious imagery and story often has universalistic appeal. The same is true for entertainment. My being Jewish never stopped me from appreciating the wealth of great musical settings of Christian liturgy, of enjoying a Charlie Brown Christmas, the Grinch, Rudolph or watching Godspell or JC Superstar, or It’s a Wonderful Life,or the Nativity from the Radio City Christmas show. A good story is a good story, a good song is a good song, and good sincere (and even good insincere) religious expression is just that. The honest solution in dealing with the “December Dilemma” is always the best. However, if we’re going to be honest with our kids about Xmas, we also need to be honest with them about Hanukkah, and explain that the “miracle of the oil” was really a rabbinic invention to avoid the controversy of celebrating a holiday of a small band of Jewish terrorists beating the Syrian Greeks in the face living in a diaspora of Roman rule. Sure it feels lousy to do that-we all enjoy the innocence of a child’s viewpoint. The GLEE episode certainly reinforced that (I was actually a little disappointed and even offended about how far they took the Xmas metaphor, but that’s for another rant some other time)We also need to be honest with them and say we only give them presents on Hanukkah because we’re competing with Xmas. And you know what? That’s OK. Share the spirit. Would that non-Jews would share in the spirit of the Days of Awe, Sukkot, Pesakh, and Shavuot.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear migdalorguy:

You expressed puzzlement that Christians don’t show interest in the Days of Awe, Sukkot, etc.

The Christians adopted all of these holidays in radically altered form as Christianity developed:

Pesach = Easter (Christ’s Last Supper was a Passover seder)

Shavuot = Pentecost (group of Christ’s disciples received the Holy Spirit as a group, a Christian analogy to the giving of the Torah at Sinai)

Days of Awe = were transferred to the spring in a pre-Easter season of weeks of penitence called Lent, culminating in Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, days for major repentance.

Sukkot = transferred to Halloween and to Thanksgiving

Hanukkah = Christmas (I don’t think it is an accident that Christians adopted a Roman winter festival as the anniversary of Christ’s birth, when the New Testament indicates that he was born in springtime.)

I completely agree with Shaun’s comment above. It doesn’t need to be a competition and there’s no reason a Jewish kid can’t enjoy the Frosty and Charlie Brown specials. If they are raised in the Jewish faith and they have their own set of beliefs, they will see Christmas as another holiday. And it will also help children feel less left out. I grew up Jewish, but very isolated during Christmas because my parents never instilled a strong sense of Judaism in us. My parents said that we don’t celebrate Christmas, yet they never taught us about our own religion. With my 3-year-old, she goes to Jewish preschool, says the Ha’motzi, and could articulate what the menora was. I don’t think Dora’s Christmas is going to cause her to convert.

Evelinsche says:

I was in my son’s kindergarten classroom one morning 30 years ago grading papers (he’d recently received a point off for declaring a beet with a long e to be a ternep with short e’s on a mimeo without colors) when the teacher asked, “Does anyone know what wonderful holiday we had this weekend?” “YES!” he said, “YES! It’s Sukkoth and we ate in our sukkah and had lots of company, though we couldn’t see some of them, and there were branches on the roof and it didn’t rain enough to cool the soup so we stayed outside and I drew pictures and made a paper chain and hanged up the fruits and it’s not over for days and days!” At which his teacher explained she was thinking of Columbus Day (already Indigenous Peoples Day around here at the edge of the
West). So I invited them on a field trip and they all came over for apple juice two days later. Seasonal problem? What problem?

Loved this! I’m so with you on #4. I’ve been debating this topic for two weeks all over the internet.

My original post is here.

It even encouraged someone else to completely disagree with me in ANOTHER blog post of her own on JWA’s site.

eliyah says:

I’m an orthodox convert who is quite close to my nonjewish family. My nieces and nephews believe in the santa myth and it’s not nice for me or my kids to take that away from them. The approach we’ve taken is that Santa is a tzaddik for the non-jews who spreads love and presents to the non-jewish world. Hashem is so great and has given us shabbat every week and many different haggim that he’s only fair to give the nonjews their one special holiday a year. This has worked pretty well for us!

One of my fondest memories from childhood is watching sesame street as a kid, in the early 80’s, before Harold Hooper (the actor who played Mr Hooper) passed away. He was Jewish in real life, and on the show. It only came up once a year, on the Christmas episode, but it made such a huge impression on me! I could hardly believe there was a Jewish character on my favorite show, and that it was clear he did not celebrate Christmas, although he bought presents for his friends, etc, and accepted wishes of “Happy Hannukah” That was all I needed as a Jewish kid. If Mr Hooper didnt celebrate Christmas, then I wasn’t missing anything either.
Its too bad that more shows can’t embody the experience of different friends of differnet religions, b/c that is what the “real” world is all about anyhow!

Chana Batya says:

@Robin Margolis,

In many ways you are right. I would like to add: it’s not for nothing that EVERY religious/cultural group has a Festival of Lights. It goes back to primitive humans who feared the loss of light at the solstice and both prayed for the return of the light and also lit lights in defiance of the dark. Chanukah (may celebrate events that actually took place in Kislev, which always comes around the solstice) and Christmas both coincide with the Greek holiday of Saturnalia, which worshiped Saturn (or Neptune, if you were Roman), and guess when it was? December! Not to mention Diwali (Hindu Festival of Lights, in late autumn), Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) and Tet (Vietnamese “New Year”), both around February…I’m sure there are others. The only group I know of that has no Festival of Lights is Islam, because their calendar is not coordinated with the solar calendar, only the lunar one.

I grew up with both holidays; Christmas was just an American holiday with Santa Claus, a stocking he stuffed, and family fun…not religious. For some families it was a religious holiday, just not ours. It didn’t harm me or my feelings toward my own Jewish faith which we celebrated with its own holidays. I wasn’t confused…I guess it is how it is presented; in this case it was just an American winter holiday.

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Santa Pause

What are Jewish parents to do when every show on television drips with Christmas cheer? Here are four strategies for managing your children’s expectations in this most un-Jewish time of year.

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