“How do I explain the difference between Hanukkah and Christmas?”

Jewish children often feel a sense of alienation during the Christmas/Hanukkah season. Stores and houses are filled with decorations for a holiday Jewish children don’t celebrate. Well-meaning strangers ask, “What are you getting for Christmas?” “Have you put up your tree yet?” and Jewish children feel awkward answering. Schools often center art projects and assemblies on Christmas, and some children and adults who know little about Judaism say in amazement, “You mean you don’t celebrate Christmas?”

Young Jewish children may feel they’re missing something. A holiday when parents are off from work and presents are placed beneath a decorated tree can seem enticing: “Can’t we get a Christmas tree too and still celebrate Hanukkah?” “Do we get as many presents at Hanukkah as kids who celebrate Christmas?”

Jewish children can also feel resentment and anger that their holiday, Hanukkah, is not treated as Christmas is: “Why are there Christmas decorations everywhere? Why not Hanukkah decorations?” “Not everybody celebrates Christmas. They should care about other people’s religions.” These feelings stem from a child’s desire to be treated equally and fairly. A six- to nine-year-old wants to be like her friends and classmates. At Christmas, Jewish children become acutely aware of the differences between themselves and their Christian friends.

Jewish parents should let their child express her feelings and they should try to understand her anger. They should then use the holiday season to talk about the differences between religions, the feelings of minorities, and the meaning of various holidays in our diverse culture. Although Hanukkah is not as religiously significant to Jews as Christmas is to Christians, the two often are linked because of their closeness on the calendar and because gifts are given for both. Jewish children should be taught the importance of their own holiday and should be helped to enjoy it for the cultural, historical, and religious occasion that it is.

To help your child focus on the positive side of the holiday season, try recreating Hanukkah activities you remember from your childhood. Ask your child how she’d like to mark the holiday: baking and cooking, playing games, making cards and gifts. Encourage a sense of community by inviting friends and relatives over to light the Hanukkah candles during the holiday’s eight nights. Ask your child’s teacher if she’d like you to make a class presentation on Hanukkah.

Many Jewish families help their Christian friends decorate a tree. This is one way to share the enjoyment of the holiday season. Also be sure your child has an opportunity during the holidays to perform community service with you or otherwise help you give to people in need.

During this season, as at other times, show the behavior you’d like your child to adopt. Let her see your enthusiasm for Hanukkah and understanding and respect for the religious beliefs of others. Eventually she will be able to enjoy her own holiday and observe the celebration of Christmas without feeling left out.

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