How I Feel as a Jew During Christmas

December 13, 2018Juliette Hirt

We chose to raise our children in a home that celebrated Hanukkah – but sustaining a minority culture in the face of Christmas’s incessant commercial drumbeat was exhausting.

“No, Santa isn’t coming to our house.” “Yes, he’s going to your friends’ houses.” “Yes, it’s exciting that Santa brought your friend a tricycle.” “No, Santa still isn’t coming to our house.”

On the bright side, the situation provided an opportunity to teach my children that we live in a great country where people have many different religions and the government doesn’t favor one over another. In other times and places, people attacked us just for being Jews, but in our country today, we are safe and free to celebrate our holidays.

Our children attended a preschool located in the building that houses our state’s Supreme Court. Every morning we walked through the Great Hall, whose exhibits provided more opportunities to teach the children about the values and principles of our country, including the separation of church and state.  

Things became more complicated in December. The stately hall erupted in evergreen swag and red bows, trees glittering with tinsel, and piles of gifts.

I explained to my children that even a great country doesn’t always live up to its ideals. It’s up to each of us to keep working to make those ideals real and help our country be the best version of itself. My son made a poster about Hanukkah, and we brought in dreidels and gelt (chocolate coins) to share. His classmates were curious and attentive. It felt good to be introducing the inquisitive preschoolers to Judaism.

When my son was in kindergarten, his teacher decided – to my dismay – to spend two weeks making Christmas crafts. When I gently expressed my discomfort with the plan, explaining that we are Jewish, she excitedly explained how much she loved Christmas and said that, for the first time, her entire class (except for my son) was Christian. It seemed like the perfect time to share her favorite crafts with them.

Sympathetic to my concern, she offered to send my son to the library alone while the other children made reindeer and built gingerbread houses. That isn’t how the separation of church and state is supposed to work! I discreetly brought the matter to the principal’s attention, but to no avail.

So I let my son participate in two weeks of Christmas crafts, and I offered to teach the children about Hanukkah. I fried up enough latkes for the entire class and served them with all the fixings. My son showed them our hanukkiyah (candle holder), and we shared a picture book about Hanukkah around the world.

The children were mesmerized. Everyone wanted to spin the dreidel, and every last latke was consumed. It felt wonderful to share our culture and to demystify Judaism for the children and their teacher.

That was years ago. My children are now old enough to negotiate the holidays without my help, but there is still work to be done.

This year, walking through the towering Christmas trees, festive wreaths, and profusion of poinsettias in the lobby on my way to work, I was reminded that, for all the ideals enshrined in our Constitution and our civil rights laws, the Christian winter holiday still dominates our public spaces to the exclusion of other religions.

As I talked with people about our building’s lobby, it dawned on me that a majority of my Jewish friends feel like outsiders in such spaces. One friend lamented, “It’s the only time of year when I feel like a foreigner in my own country.”

By contrast, my friends of Christian origin have a wide variety of thoughts and feelings about Christmas, but it never challenges their core sense of fully belonging in this country – and until we talked, most of them had never dreamed that Christmas pageantry might cause some Jews to feel estranged.

This situation calls for more than a dreidel poster and a plate of latkes. What’s needed is education – for grownups.

I decided that I wanted our next winter lobby display to be more welcoming, and not merely by adding a token hanukkiyah. I wanted the building managers, display designers, my co-workers, and others to join me in becoming aware that Christmas hegemony makes a significant number of people feel excluded.

That insight opens up a wonderful opportunity to steer closer to our national ideals by crafting our winter decor, from the ground up, to better reflect the religious pluralism we value.

 How fortunate that so many religions share the values of hospitality and inclusion!

I wrote a petition to that effect, which my co-workers are circulating throughout the building. Maybe the lobby display will change next year or maybe it won’t, but I like to believe that some people will have started thinking about religious pluralism in a new way.

And perhaps a few will even start standing up for it.

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