The day before winter break started last year, I left work early and headed to our elementary school. As I approached my son’s kindergarten classroom, I could hear and feel the children’s joyous energy before I reached the door. When I entered the room, I was greeted by dozens of small, excited faces, eager for more holiday fun. My son, grinning from ear to ear, grabbed my hand and proudly introduced me to his friends. His sweet, hardworking – and tired! – teacher was happy to take a seat at the rear of the class and offered me the rocking chair in front.
Since I felt it was important to have representation of our faith during the holiday party, I signed up to speak to the class. This was my moment. I began sharing our holiday with his classmates: Hanukkah. I read a book about Hanukkah, and I lit a menorah while explaining the tradition. With the eight candles aglow, I passed out bags of colorful dreidels (4-sided tops with a different Hebrew letter on each side) and a pouch of golden chocolate coins to each child. This is when I definitely won them over! The kids were thrilled.
But what I’ll never forget was seeing my son teach all of his friends how to play with dreidels and what the Hebrew letters meant. The kids took turns raising their hands to ask my son or me what letter they got and how much chocolate they won. My son took charge and proudly shared this part of his culture with his classmates. I was so grateful for the chance to pass on this tradition! My own mom, Jewish mother extraordinaire, did the same for me, and I can only hope to do as good of a job passing on the pride of our Jewish culture as she did. There are generations of Jews in my family who had survived religious persecution and helped me prepare my son for moments like this in a classroom with his peers. I felt the gravity of the past in this light moment. I hope he never loses that spark and faith.
It’s a spark I have struggled with through the years. It’s hard to feel that I’m not being truthful when people wish me a “Merry Christmas” and I simply respond “thank you” to avoid chitchat, or worse, to avoid making the other person feel uncomfortable. It used to make me feel like an outsider, and admittedly at times – bitter. I don’t understand how saying “happy holidays” diminishes the Christmas spirit – or any other festive feeling, for that matter. Given the variety of spiritual beliefs in our world, I personally wouldn’t presume to know another person’s beliefs by expressing holiday-specific sentiments.
Once I had kids, I felt like I had to speak up for them, and in turn, I became more comfortable standing up for myself. Now, when someone says “Merry Christmas” to me, I respond, “Thank you for your good wishes, but we celebrate Hanukkah. Merry Christmas to you!” I encourage my kids to do the same when others might ask them, “What did you ask Santa Claus for this year?”
To embrace the different ways of celebrating December holidays, I have started throwing a Hanukkah party for my non-Jewish friends and neighbors. At our annual party, the theme is oil. Oil reminds us of the miracle of Hanukkah, when after the temple was destroyed, only enough oil was found to provide light for one day, but a great miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days. (The real miracle we are celebrating was that the Maccabee army convinced the Greek army, which had destroyed our temple, to allow us the right to celebrate our own religion and customs. Now that’s worth a celebration!) At our family party, we share printouts with the blessings for the candles, as well as an explanation of these verses. The kids play dreidel, and my amazing friend makes enough latkes to feed a real Maccabee army. There’s also the traditional soufganiot, a jelly-filled donut. My heart is so happy to share our Jewish traditions with our neighbors, some of whom had never spun a dreidel before our party! Our family friends now look forward to this celebration of the season, of friends, and of faith.
I’m not the only one who wants to share her family’s culture. I have a dear friend who is Buddhist and celebrates Tet. Her family throws a Lunar New Year party where we get to learn about their culture and traditions – and of course, indulge in tasty delights such as egg rolls, sweet coconut rice, and moon cake. We have also made it a yearly tradition to decorate another friend’s Christmas tree. Together, our Jewish and Christian families listen to Christmas music, snack on candy canes, and bask in the glow of the lights as our friends tell us the histories of their cherished Christmas tree ornaments. Just as we open our home to share our traditions, we appreciate learning about our neighbors’ traditions. These experiences and memories are priceless and truly add to the joy of the holiday season.
Hanukkah is this month, and the excitement is building in my home. Since the summer, my son has been asking me about coming to his first-grade class to talk about Hanukkah. I love his memory of this special time and how it fills him with pride.
With the current climate in our country, it saddens me that our holidays might be divisive or used to spur fear. I’ll never understand why simply acknowledging the value of another family’s holiday might put one’s own holiday in jeopardy. This couldn’t be further from the truth! If my 6-year-old son can relish sharing holidays with his public school classmates, can’t we all? And by doing so, the meaning of the holidays is realized: to share peace, joy, love, family togetherness, and gratitude that we get to live in a place where we can all celebrate our respective holidays safely and proudly!
From my family to yours, I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. Shalom!