This content in this section uses Jewish knowledge and the richness of Jewish traditions as tools for helping children (and adults) safely and confidently navigate non-Jewish spaces, people, activities, etc. during the winter holiday season.
As a Jew in a Christian-majority society, the winter holiday season can be frustrating, confusing, and isolating. December, more than any other month of the year, puts Christianity in the spotlight. For example, cashiers and servers in stores and restaurants wish customers a “Merry Christmas” and ask kids what they asked from Santa for Christmas. Christmas music plays on loop in shopping malls and theme parks. Santa Claus and his alluring Christmas display sits square in the middle of malls. Commercials, carols, movies, and “holiday specials” crowd the airwaves. And, wreaths and lights decorate town centers.
Chanukah (much less other holidays during this time of year), doesn’t appear to be a glitch on the radar of most public displays this time of year. Even so, each Jewish family has the opportunity to make something positive from these feelings and experiences by focusing their energy and attention differently.
Table of Contents
Secular vs Religious
One of the ways that, as Americans and as Jews, that we assess different kinds of holiday inclusion in our lives, is if a holiday or a holiday symbol is deemed “secular” or “religious.”
The forthcoming content of this section will describe two different litmus tests for this determination: How does the mainstream Jewish community make a determination? and How has the court system of the United States made a legal determination? Understanding that these definitions are not in agreement helps us make educated choices for ourselves and our families.
Additional content coming soon.
Positively Framing the Minority Experience
The article entitled, ‘The Guide to Hanukkah Christmas and Your Interfaith Family,’ highlights the fact that Chanukah does not have to be the be all, end all holiday for Jewish children. “…if Hanukkah is only one part of their Jewish experience, which might also include lighting Shabbat candles, having a Passover seder and wearing costumes for Purim, then Hanukkah doesn’t have to tick every box for what makes Judaism meaningful and fun.” In other words, Chanukah is only one piece of a rich calendar of delightful and meaningful celebrations and observances that take place for Jewish families throughout the calendar year.
In the article entitled, ‘The Joy of Not Celebrating Christmas’ the author shares how her family appreciates not celebrating Christmas. “Even though I don’t celebrate it, Christmas may well be my favorite day of the year. Actually, it may be my favorite because I don’t celebrate. In the absence of any rituals or extended family obligations, and yet with a full day off work, my husband Joe, daughters and I have been free to create our own tradition.” Their family spends the day with each other or with other Jewish or non-Christian friends, eats Chinese food for dinner, and watches and discusses the (very Jewish) film, Fiddler on the Roof. Christmas day has become a true gift for their Jewish family.
It is therefore the responsibility of Jewish families to bring Jewish learning and practice to life, nurture the Jewish calendar weekly and annually, and create meaningful experiences for themselves that can be passed down l’dor v’dor “from generation to generation.” Reimaging Christmas in these ways diminishes what is happening in the outside world, and turns the focus on what is core to the family…family!
All that said, for those of you who just can’t seem to get past the Christmas hoopla, check out this article entitled, ‘How to Lose the Chip on Your Shoulder During Christmas.’ It gives ten steps to lose your attitude at Christmas.
Suggested talking points if a child asks...
During the winter holiday season, Jewish parents often encounter questions from their children or have their own questions about how to make sense of certain aspects of Chanukah and Christmas. Below are a few questions along with one opinion article that addresses the question through another person’s lived experience.
Know that there are many answers to any one question, so there is no right or wrong response!
- Question: Why doesn’t Santa come to our house?
- Question: How can Christmas make Jewish kids more resilient?
- Question: How do Jewish kids not spoil Christmas for their non-Jewish friends?
- Question: How can non-Jewish friends be welcoming to friends of other faiths?
- Question: Can my Jewish family have a Christmas tree?
- Article, ‘A Christmas Tree in a Jewish Home’
- Question: What if my Jewish kids love Christmas music?
- Article, ‘Can a Jew Love Christmas Music’
- Question: What do I say when my Jewish children ask about Christmas?
- Question: What do I do about non-Jewish family members giving Christmas presents?
- Article, ‘If you are Jewish but have family members who celebrate Christmas, do your kids get “Xmas” gifts?’
Tools and strategies for making schools safe for all students around the winter holiday season
The winter holiday season can present public school families with additional questions and concerns related to the permissibility of religious teaching, symbols, and/or songs in school settings.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL): legal resource guide for public schools
Our friends at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have put together a series of strategies and resources for parents, educators, and communities to better understand what is legally acceptable and what is not. Below are a few highlights from the ADL materials:
- “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion to all Americans (including school children) by prohibiting the government from endorsing or promoting any particular religious point of view.” As such, schools are prohibited from teaching about religion in a way that gives priority or preference to any single religion.
- “It is constitutionally permissible for public schools to teach about religion, but unconstitutional for public schools to observe religious holidays or practice religion.” As such, schools are permitted to provide knowledge about various religions, but are not permitted to observe, practice, or endorse any one religion.
- “The Supreme Court has said that religion may only be studied when it is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” As such, schools can teach about “historical, contemporary, and cultural aspects” of a religion.
- “School-sponsored activities should also focus on more than one religion and religious holiday. Depicting a diversity of beliefs and customs is important to teaching public school students about religion and culture.” As such, school are encouraged to offer classes such as world religions where students are exposed to a multitude of religions and religious observance.
- “It is also important to provide students the opportunity to choose not to participate in activities they find offensive to their religious sensibilities.” As such, since religion is a delicate subject, students are able to exempt out of activities for religious purposes.
- “Due to the dominance of religious music in serious choral music and the legitimate secular reasons for having public school students sing choral music, courts have been more lenient about allowing public school choirs to sing religious music.” As such, public schools will likely continue to have “holiday” chorale programs containing a majority of Christian religious music.
- “In the context of displays on public property, the Supreme Court has ruled that a Christmas crèche (nativity scene) standing alone is impermissible, but a Christmas tree is permissible because it has become such a secular (non-religious) symbol of the winter holiday season. It also has found that a Chanukah menorah is a symbol with both secular and religious meanings, and its display on public property within a predominantly secular display is permissible.” As such, Christmas trees and Chanukah menorahs (Chanukiyot), when displayed during the winter holiday season are permissible because they are seen as secular, and not religious in nature.
- “Additionally, symbols depicting religious holidays are most appropriate when accompanied by both secular objects and symbols from holidays of other religions. This combination of faiths and of secular and sacred helps to neutralize messages of favoritism and concerns about religious coercion. For instance, on a board filled during the winter months with images of snowflakes, candles and evergreen trees, it might be appropriate to add images of Santa Claus and even a Chanukah menorah because the overall message is clearly a celebration of the season, not the promotion of a religious point of view. However, a nativity scene, crucifix or other undeniably religious symbols are not appropriate for a public-school display, especially when they are the only objects displayed.” As such, there is a differentiation noted between items that are secular and items that are sacred (religious). When (predetermined) secular items are contextualized within items that are associated with the seasonal framework, they are permissible.
To read more about the information above as well as to gain access to additional content and tools, explore the links below:
Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding: creating inclusive workplaces for the winter holiday season
With some similarity to the resources created by the ADL, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding created a document to encourage more open and inclusive work environments during the winter holiday season. In their resource entitled, ‘December Dilemma 2019,’ the Tanenbaum Center highlights how to be sensitive with colleagues in December, spotlights (traditionally) December holidays, and provides a sampling of holiday greetings for colleagues of other faiths. The two sections below come directly from the document which is linked below.
The Tanenbaum Center encourages colleagues to respect one another by learning about other religions that often share the calendar in December. The following list is provided:
- Eid al-Fitr, a celebration that marks the end of Ramadan in the Muslim faith. The Eid has shifting dates, and although it has fallen over the summer during recent years it can fall much later in the calendar.
- Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. This five-day celebration usually falls in October or November.
- Bodhi Day, a Buddhist holiday celebrating Siddhartha Guatama’s (the Buddha’s) realization and presentation to his fellow seekers of the Four Noble Truths. Bodhi Day is traditionally celebrated on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month.
- Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. This eight-day holiday can fall in late November, December, or occasionally early January.
- Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity. Christmas is celebrated on December 25 by Christians who use the Gregorian calendar. Christians using the Julian calendar—many of whom are Eastern Orthodox Christians—celebrate Christmas on December 25 on the Julian calendar, which translates into January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
- Kwanzaa, a week-long secular holiday honoring African-American heritage. This holiday is observed from December 26 through January 1 each year by some African-Americans in the United States.
- The Lunar New Year, a traditional Chinese holiday marking the end of winter that falls sometime during January or February. The Lunar New Year is an East and South East Asian celebration. In China it is known as the “Spring Festival” and marks the end of the winter season.
- Yule is a Wiccan or Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, thus celebrated in the winter months. Yule celebrates the rebirth of the sun, the beginning of the time when the days will become longer, and welcomes the bounty of spring.
The Tanenbaum Center also encourages colleagues to learn a variety of holiday greetings as a way to honor one another in the work place. The following list is provided:
- “Eid Mubarak,” the Arabic greeting meaning “Blessed Eid.”
- “Happy Diwali” or the Hindi greeting “Saal Mubarak,” which means “Happy New Year.”
- “Happy Hanukkah”
- “Merry Christmas”
- “Habari Gani?” which is “What’s the news?” in Swahili, the language used for Kwanzaa greetings. The response will be the name of that day – “Nia” for example.
- Numerous greetings are used to wish people well during the Lunar New Year, such as “Happy New Year.”
- If you aren’t sure what holiday, if any, your colleague or client celebrates, you can use a more general greeting such as “Happy holidays” or “Have a good year end.”