from the December e-newsletter of The PJ Library:
My daughters begin asking for Chanukah books at bedtime early in the year – even before the supermarkets start piping in Christmas music, which happens, I believe, in August. Last night, Zoe, my three year old, chose Chanukah Lights Everywhere. It’s not so much a story as a sweet stroll through the eight nights of Chanukah. On each night, the narrator notices lights that correspond to the number of candles on his menorah – on the second night, two headlights pull up to his home; on the fourth night, four gas flames burn beneath pans of latkes; and so on.
When we turned the page to the seventh night, we found an illustration of a house decorated with a wreath and seven red candles. Zoe and Ella both clapped their hands gleefully. “Look! It’s Christmas!” shouted Ella. “Christmas? Where’s Santa?” demanded Zoe, pulling the book from my hands for a closer look.
As you may have surmised, my little Jewish girls, who wear “shaine maidele” t-shirts, and castigate me for forgetting to recite the bedtime shma, love Christmas time. They don’t know much about the holiday, but they know it’s special and it’s fancy, or at least the little-girl version of fancy, which my grandmother used to describe as ongepotchket. Twinkling lights, plush red velvet, and men with beards that look suspiciously like their father’s (but more neatly groomed) passing out candy canes on street corners. What’s not to like?
My own relationship with Christmas is more complicated. When I was young, being a Jew at Christmas felt like having a crush on my best friend’s boyfriend. I couldn’t decide whether to steer clear of all of the places where the couple might turn up (as in, everywhere I wanted to go) or to go anyway and stand wistfully by as they held hands and gushed over one another. Come December, I would sometimes avoid and sometimes seek out the places where Christmas was in full display, half-envious and half-delighted by my proximity to the glitz.
I generally go out of my way to expose my children to a variety of cultures. We’ve attended Chinese New Year celebrations and pow-wows; we eat miso soup, curries, and pad thai; read legends from Latin America and listen to music from Africa. But my approach to Christmas has been different. I treat it more like a gateway drug – serve a few glasses of eggnog, or turn on Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and next thing I know, my children will be signing up for the convent.
So last year, when my mother invited us to the Nutcracker Ballet, I labored over the decision. We’ve explained why my husband’s parents celebrate Christmas (they’re Catholic) with no ensuing identity crises, but what flood gates might be opened by bringing Christmas (and so enticing a version of Christmas!) into our immediate family’s lives? Would my children beg for a Christmas tree? Start writing to Santa? Demand fruitcake instead of latkes?
I’m no tyrant. Of course, we went to the Nutcracker. The day after the performance I overheard my daughters playing in the sunroom. “What do you want for Christmas?” asked Ella. “I don’t know, what do you want for Christmas?” asked Zoe. On the table were several drawings of large, decorated trees. I drew a deep breath. “What are you doing, girls?” I asked, steeling myself for their response. “Oh,” replied Ella casually, “We’re playing Christians.”
Granted, it’s a somewhat unusual game. (I can’t imagine what the rules are.) But it pointed out to me that my children are so secure in who they are, so completely comfortable in their Jewish identity, that being Christian to them is like being Cinderella. It’s a perfectly wonderful thing to be, but it’s not who they are. That’s when I remembered that once I fell in love, it wasn’t hard to be around my friend’s boyfriend any more. My girls are in love with being Jewish; being around others celebrating Christmas can’t possibly diminish their joy.
When Zoe finally handed me back the copy of Chanukah Lights Everywhere, we read the page accompanying the picture of Christmas. The narrator explains “Chanukah is also about the joy of different religions sharing a street.” On these long dark nights, perhaps all of the lights we see, whether they be headlights, Christmas lights, or the candles in the menorah are illuminating a path towards peace and hope. Season’s Greetings, from my family to yours.
The PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations. To learn more, go to