It’s that time of year again. It seems that Christmas is everywhere I turn: the lady at the grocery store asks me what I’m doing for Christmas, songs are blaring at the mall, decorations and lights are on every corner. My coworkers are really into it, with Secret Santa and the like; and while some of them wished me “Happy Chanukah,” which is nice, the office culture is pretty steeped in Christmas right now and I feel uncomfortable saying I don’t want to participate even though they know I’m Jewish.
Additionally, my kids go to public school, and though there isn’t so much overt display of the holiday, they feel left out with majority of their classmates discussing everything that goes along with decking the halls: the pageantry, the gifts, the family excursions, and so on.
I don’t want to be a Grinch, but this isn’t our holiday. How should I navigate this at the office, and how should I guide my kids through this “most wonderful time of the year”?
Distraught Debby in December
This can be a toughie, especially for your kids. One thing that confuses people is the idea of Chanukah-Christmas equivalence. Your coworkers, for example, probably think that since you do Chanukah and they respect that and say “Happy Chanukah,” what’s the big deal if you participate in Christmas stuff, right? And same for your kids: These days, schools are big into multiculturalism and everyone should celebrate everyone else’s holidays and learn about each other.
For some, this may be OK. For Jews, it’s more complicated.
Let’s go back to the Chanukah story, shall we? The Greeks and Maccabees were fighting, but this time was different from previous wars. The fight between the Greeks and the Jews was a religious war, not a war for physical survival. The question was whether the Jews would assimilate and become Hellenized or stand up and proudly fight for their identity.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe (or simply “the Rebbe”), initiated large public menorah lightings in 1974. That year, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov (father of local Rabbi Levi Shemtov) lit a large menorah at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. By 2013, Chabad had 15,000 public lightings planned!
The reason it was so important to the Rebbe to have these public displays was that the menorah is a “symbol and message of the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness.” He noted that, “Our Sages said, ‘A little light expels a lot of darkness.’ The Chanukah Lights remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, by increasing and intensifying the light of the Torah and Mitzvos in the everyday experience.” It also reminds us of the need to increase our observance and pride in being Jewish to fight assimilation, not just by “not doing Christmas.”
So, what does this all mean and how can we apply it to our lives in the entire month of December? (OK, from Thanksgiving on, really.)
First, teach your kids that they should be proud to be Jewish. That it doesn’t matter what their friends are doing, and that Chanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” just because it happens around the same time of year. And, most of all, they don’t need to explain themselves. They can tell their friends: We had a great Chanukah this year, and on Christmas, our American Jewish tradition is to order kosher Chinese food and watch a movie.
Second, whether Chanukah comes early, like this year, or later, like it will next year, please celebrate! Light those menorahs, eat those gelt, go to the Menorah lighting on the National Mall, sing Chanukah songs, eat latkes and soufganiyot. Do it up big.
Overall, don’t overthink it. You do you. Don’t get tetchy about Secret Santa, but don’t do it if you’re uncomfortable. And don’t be Scroogey, for goodness sake. I used to give my coworkers red and white decorated chocolate-covered pretzels from The Candy Man every year and they were totally psyched. Why not? When the checkout lady at Giant asks you what you’re doing for Christmas, just say, “Still making plans. Have a great holiday.” And smile.
And keep smiling. Think how lucky we are to be born Jewish. Those trees probably make a big mess anyway, and who needs that?
All the best,