As the father of a mixed-faith child, this is the time of year reserved for my deepest holiday insecurities. I feel like I’m playing catch up from the moment the first Christmas decorations appear in the local mall, i.e., August.
My wife, while not “severely” Christian, does like holding onto the home-décor traditions of her youth. So we have a tree. This is catnip for a little girl, what with its glimmering ornaments and color overload. And don’t forget the promise of the coming bounty beneath. What does Hanukkah do to compete? Hanukkah reaches across the aisle and offers half-hearted blue and white ornaments, Stars of David dangling between plush versions of the cross. And as far as gifts go, the tradition of giving presents at Hanukkah only developed so Jewish children wouldn’t feel bad at Christmas time.
This adds up to a significant trade deficit between the two holidays. We don’t see Christmas-themed dreidels, or red and green latkes. Christmas does just fine on its own. Then, of course, I have to cope with Christmas’s advance team (Advent calendars, the Elf on the Shelf), and its vastly superior ground game (Santa goes door-to-door).
Most daunting of all is Christmas’s ability, like a great politician, to couch its narrative in fantasy. Few Christmas stories concern the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead, we get stories of redemption (Scrooge), anticipation (The Night Before Christmas), and competitive shopping (that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger). These stories aren’t about Christmas, they’re about Christmas Day. Hanukkah stories, on the other hand, start and end with the Maccabees. Nothing wrong with that, but one can only have so many variations on a theme, and the attention span of a child is short.
Sometimes I long for those rare years when Hanukkah comes especially early–when it encroaches on Thanksgiving‘s territory. Better to avoid Christmas altogether.
Then, as I shift into my get-out-the-Hanukkah-vote gear, I think of how a few months ago, in the heat of summer, my daughter wrapped up some of her toys with newspaper and brought them to me one by one. “Happy Hanukkah!” she yelled. Hanukkah was months away, or months behind us, depending on the way you looked at it. But for that day at least, it was on her mind.
So whose hang up is it? Children don’t naturally associate Christmas and Hanukkah, any more than they’re born knowing their ABCs. To my daughter, they’re two stand-alone holidays with separate traditions and meanings. I’m the one who views every spin of the Charlie Brown Christmas CD as a win for the other side. (Though I’m usually the one who plays it. Guilty!)
One day, when the rush of getting presents has faded, she’ll learn that Hanukkah is in fact a minor Jewish holiday. Our bones are made during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those High Holidays come at a time of year that Christianity mercifully leaves to us. Until then, I’ll push the fashion shows of Purim and the festivities of Sukkot. And at Hanukkah time, I’ll remind myself that my wife and I are a partnership. I don’t have to win the holiday season. By getting twice the loot, my daughter does that already.