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In a second-grade classroom I visited recently, the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas. When they finished Sarah announced, "I don't celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. We get eight presents every night for eight nights."
Even for those who were not yet up on their multiplication tables, her total clearly trumped the previous top scorer. It was a valiant attempt to compete with Christmas, and I think it worked on the other children. But she couldn't fool me. I've been there myself, plus I'm a therapist.
Therapists aim to place themselves in their client's shoes. What is life like for them? What is their subjective experience?
So let's be a young Jewish child living in North America in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.
Your best friend, who is not Jewish, lives down the street. Her parents, who normally won't allow her to bring anything bigger than a twig or a rock into the house, drag a dark, fragrant, 7-foot fir tree through the front door. For hours they work to decorate the tree with twinkling and glittering objects. These normally tidy people fling handfuls of shiny tinsel at the needles, careless of how many fall to the floor, and at the end of this happy ritual one of the grownups balances on a stepladder to place a star atop the tree.
This unusual activity is in preparation for a visit from a man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer. Everything about him is out of the realm of ordinary experience. He wears a red suit decorated with white fur, lands on their roof, and enters their house through their chimney. In exchange for a simple offering of cookies and a glass of milk, he delivers to them exactly the presents their hearts desire (as long as his magical list shows that they have been "nice"). He lovingly places tiny red-and-white-striped candy canes and small gifts in a sock with their name on it pinned to the fireplace, and places the larger items under the tree.
Where do all these gifts come from? They were made and wrapped by happy, highly industrious elves.
What is your experience beyond your friend's house? A soundtrack of lovely, jaunty songs in anticipation of the man's visit plays all month everywhere you go. When you go to the store with your mom to buy a present for your teacher, the saleswoman leans over and asks "The Question." Even if your family buys all their holiday presents online or at the Chanukah boutique at the temple, if you don't live in Tel Aviv or Monsey, N.Y., someone will ask, "What do you want Santa to bring you? What did you ask Santa for?"
You aren't sure what to say to be polite and still protect your pride. Santa doesn't come to your house not because of the naughty-nice business but because you don't celebrate Christmas. You, as a 3-year-old non-Jewish acquaintance of mine says, celebrate "Harmonica."
For a whole month your life is like the saying, "Don't think about an elephant." You can't help it because the elephants are everywhere.
Now let's go to your house. The home of no graven images, maybe a few blue-and-white decorations. On the first few nights of Chanukah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil - a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger.
As for Chanukah rituals, there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody, because you don't hear them all day, every day playing at the mall. Some nights your family might even forget to light the candles.
You host or attend a party or two where you eat latkes, a treat so delicious that you say, like you do about charoset at Passover and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, "Why don't we have this every week?"
You play a gambling game by spinning a little chunk of wood, but no one is quite sure of the rules. Instead of money you use chocolate coins wrapped in foil, each alike, except the ones that are squashed, all a bit waxy when you take a bite, none shaped like trees or stars or snowmen. If you go to a Jewish day school you get to have jelly donuts.
All of this is sweet and delightful and you do get a lot of presents, but they are spread out over eight nights, so the getting doesn't have the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium. There are only two songs to sing for your holiday, one very straightforward, detailing action by action exactly what you're doing anyway - "Lalalalalalalala, come light the menorah, let's have a party, we'll all dance the hora" - and one about an old rock.
It is tempting to spin this situation for your child: Honey, you are so lucky, you get presents for eight nights!... We celebrate Chanukah and so many other wonderful holidays all the year through!... We can buy some fruit and vegetable Christmas ornaments on sale after Thanksgiving and use them to decorate our sukkah next fall!
But these concepts ask your child to stretch her mind to encompass the whole cinematic epic of how wonderful Jewish traditions are and, at the moment, your child isn't looking at a movie. She is looking at a bright, colorful snapshot, and the snapshot is filled with such potent allure that your words float off into the category of grown-up speak, a category that contains nonsense such as, "You don't really want that ice-cream cone so close to dinner, you just think you do."
It's hard to empathize with people who seem to have everything. Yes, our children have amazingly good lives; yes, they have a stunningly profound religious heritage; yes, their parents are hopelessly devoted. But they don't have Christmas, and we can do them a kindness by taking a moment in the next few weeks to look at the temporarily dazzling world of Christmas from their perspective.
We don't have to put up a tree or sing carols or give them eight presents for eight nights, but we can let them know that we know how it looks from down there.
The received wisdom for Jewish parents is not to dilute, pollute or mix traditions. Christmas is such a joy bully, if you let any of it in the door, Chanukah will be blown out the window. But just as Republicans don't own family values, Christians haven't appropriated winter gladness and glitter.
An alternative to Christmaphobia is to be relaxed and expansive. We don't want the children to be ashamed of their longing or to have to hide their pleasure. Instead, let's call a magnificent holiday a magnificent holiday, and let our minor holiday be minor. Have a festive Chanukah party, but think about making a gingerbread house, driving around to look at the decorations, choosing your favorite house. Serve eggnog and decorate cookies at home.
As Jews, we have the freedom to selectively appreciate this holiday. We are spared some of the frenzied shopping countdown and can enjoy the visions, the aromas and the lights that are so welcome at this dark and chilly time of year. We can share with our children all the pleasure the season has to offer and protect them from feeling ashamed about it. That is a gift they can keep and pass down to our grandchildren.