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Mayim Bialik: How I Teach My Boys the Difference Between Christmas & Hanukkah

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Hanukkah is upon us! It’s here! Not with as much pomp and circumstance as last year, mind you, when it fell ON THANKSGIVING–oh my gosh that was so awesome, turkeys and latkes and candles were all the rage. Stores had painted windows with turkeys holding Hanukkiyahs; it was awesome!

Now, it’s just a normal mid-December Hanukkah and that’s fine, too. Hanukkah being upon us means the annual conversation with my sons (who are 6 and 9) to review the basics. We don’t just review Hanukkah–oh no. That would be banal. We review Hanukkah, Christmas, and wherever the twain shall meet.

You see, my sons have grandparents who celebrate Christmas. They also have grandparents who don’t, but they still have grandparents who do. SO there are lots of questions. Their dad (my ex) and I had our annual discussion we have been having since Firstborn was born which goes something like: Do you give gifts to people for your holiday or theirs? Meaning, do we give Christmas gifts to grandparents who celebrate Christmas? Or do we give them Hanukkah gifts two weeks before Christmas?

I don’t know that there is a real answer; you could argue that the holiday is about giving, so you should give on your holiday. You could also argue that that’s just plan weird, because mailing gifts in late November or early December if Hanukkah falls then is just strange and seems like you are going out of your way to give gifts at a weird strange time. Sigh.

The ex and I also had our annual discussion about whether we have to get gifts at all for the kids. I didn’t grow up with gifts like people do nowadays; Hanukkah was not this big gift holiday then. We got pajamas and books and pencils and a calendar, and that was about it. (In my day, we also had to walk a mile in the snow with torn shoes to get to the town center to draw water from the well, right? Ugh, I am such an old fogie.) I would argue that we don’t need to do big gifts at all for our sons since they get gifts all year round for birthdays and just because, and we have so much stuff and there are people who have nothing and blah blah blah blah. The ex grew up with Christmas so he likes a bit more of the gift vibe. And he thinks I am a scrooge, which I suppose he is right about.

We decided on getting them some small stuff; not something “every” night per se, but we also planned an outing to a fun place no one has been to before as a family Hanukkah present which I officially think is genius. And not just because I thought of it.

The conversation with the small people about Hanukkah and this time of year went something like this. Mind you, I am hitting the high points of this conversation for your amusement:

—-

Me: OK, guys. Let’s talk about the holidays. Christmas is coming soon, right?

Small People: Yes.

Me: Let’s talk about what it is.

Firstborn: It’s a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, who Christian people think is God, or the son of God, or… I don’t know how that works.

Me: (stifling a giggle) Right.

Little Man: It’s the holiday with Christmas trees and Santa.

Me: Right. And it is extremely important–like REALLY important–that we don’t talk to any Christmas-celebrating friends about Santa Claus not being real. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? Some people we know still remember that you told their daughter he doesn’t exist two years ago and it’s hard to explain but it’s EXTREMELY important to some people to have their children believe in this man, Santa Claus.

Firstborn: But how could one person circle the world and deliver gifts to every single child? It’s physically impossible. Why would people want to believe that?

Me: (GULP) I don’t know, baby. But they do. And I am not kidding are you listening to me I mean it please for the love of all that’s sacred in our religion, do NOT talk to children about there not being a Santa Claus.

(Read The Big Bang Theory writer Eric Kaplan’s amazing deep book about why people choose to believe what they believe in all religions, “Does Santa Exist?” It’s a real game-changer and I recommend it highly).

Me: Are we clear about not talking about Santa?

Small People: Yes.

Me: OK. Moving on. What is Hanukkah?

Little Man: Hanukkah is the holiday for people who don’t believe in Santa Claus.

Me: LOL. Yes, sweet boy. That’s exactly right.

—–

He’s not exactly right. But he’s not wrong. And for a 6-year-old, it sounds about right. The conversation continued to cover why some Jews have Christmas trees, why some Jews don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and why Jews are different than Christians, and why America has taken on Christmas as an American holiday when many of us refuse to believe that it is.

There are things about this time of year that are attractive. And I worry sometimes if Christmas looks attractive to them in a way Hanukkah doesn’t. They love driving around and looking for Christmas lights. They are fascinated by anyone’s tree they can get their eyes on. Little Man loves the local mall’s gigantic tree that looms above the parking lot, and I admit I am mesmerized by a tree with lots of shiny ornaments and especially the round ball ones. It’s pretty. I love the Christmas elements of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” and such derivatives as “The Meshuga Nutcracker” (yes, there is such an incredible thing; read about it here on their website; my ex is taking the kids with his mom this Hanukkah).

But when it comes right down to it, I don’t believe that Christmas is an American holiday. And the hysteria around spending money and shopping and one of my favorite “variety” radio stations literally only playing Christmas music starting November 1st through Christmas is really insane to me. There is enough in my culture and religion to keep me busy. I love the rituals of Judaism and I love the stories we tell and the ways we mark the seasons and the calendar and our rich and fascinating history.

I don’t begrudge people Christmas, but I don’t need or want Christmas. Maybe it is as simple as Little Man said: Hanukkah is the holiday for people who don’t believe in Santa Claus.

Happy Hanukkah, and to those celebrating, Merry Christmas. If my kid tells your kid that they need to read Eric Kaplan’s book, that’s an improvement from, “There’s no Santa Claus.” Right?

You’re welcome.



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