Hailey Eisen: Our Happy Place


Making a Big Deal of Hanukkah for Kids at Christmas Time

Because Being Jewish At Christmas Time Can Be Tough On Kids (And Mommies)

I grew up in a small town where I was literally one of only a handful of Jewish people (a very small handful). Not only were there practically no Jews living in our town, but no one really knew anything about Judaism or the Jewish holidays. Because of this, I found Christmas to be really difficult.

We'd go to the grocery store, out to eat, or to school and we'd always hear the same thing: "What do you want for Christmas little girl?" or "Are you excited for Santa to come to your house?" or "How are you celebrating Christmas this year?" I'd look questioningly at my mom, suddenly feeling really uncomfortable and not sure how to respond. I can recall giving a half-smile, nodding, and muttering some sort of answer under my breath. Sometimes my mom would explain that we were in fact Jewish and didn't celebrate Christmas. In a town of 13,000 people in the heart of the Ottawa Valley, not celebrating Christmas was practically unheard of. We'd often get a look that was a cross between sympathy and confusion. You DON'T celebrate Christmas?!

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To my mom's credit, she did make a big deal about Hanukkah and made the best of our small town situation. Every year she went to each of my brothers' and my class to spend the day making dreidels, baking cookies and latkes, and teaching our classmates the story of Hanukkah. Though we were the only house on the street without Christmas lights, we had our own traditions that we loved.

Moving away from that small town was a huge victory for me. And, thankfully I was able to make my home in Toronto where multiculturalism is a way of life. Here, latkes and Hanukkah treats are available in grocery stores. Toy shops like Mastermind have Hanukkah wrapping paper next to the Christmas wrap. And, larger-than-life menorahs are mounted and lit in public for the eight nights of Hanukkah. (I especially love the one outside the plaza at the corner of Bayview and York Mills). In this city, I feel much less out of place for not celebrating Christmas and I love that I'm not the only one celebrating something different.

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But, now that I'm not bombarded with Christmas stuff to the point that it makes me ill—I actually find myself loving it! I've even gone so far as to ask my husband (only half jokingly) if we could have a Christmas tree or lights...just for fun. It's such a festive and celebratory time of year, that I still sometimes feel like I'm missing out. Sure, it's fun to see a movie and eat Chinese food on December 25, but truth-be-told, I'd rather spend the day opening presents, drinking eggnog, and celebrating with family.

Recently, I've started hearing from Jewish mommy friends that their little ones are saying things like: "Why can't we celebrate Christmas?" or "I don't want to be Jewish, I want Christmas" or "I want to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas" (those are the smartest kids I think!)

With Hanukkah starting next week, I really want to make a big deal out of the holiday. I want my kids to feel special, to form a connection with the holiday and their religion. I also LOVE buying presents and love watching my kids open them. I want my kids to experience the festivity of this time of year, and to feel part of it, rather than separate from it. I want to make latkes with my daughter (or maybe convince my mom to make latkes with my daughter!). Hang sparkly, blue and silver Hanukkah decorations from our ceilings. Host parties and light the candles. Even though it's not an important holiday as far as the religion goes, and even though I'm not so into religion, I want to make it a special holiday in our house.

(Willow's first Hanukkah, 2010)

But this year, once Hanukkah has come and gone, we'll still have nearly a month until Christmas. That's the trouble with the Jewish calendar. What are we supposed to do for the whole month of December so we don't feel left out? How should my 3-year-old be taught to respond when someone in a store asks her if she's excited for Santa to visit? What can I do to make her feel special but not different, this time of year?

This is the first year that she'll really know what's going on. So I have to decide how I want to handle it all.

In the meantime, I have a closet full of Hanukkah gifts, piles of children's books, and five menorahs ready to go. Happy Hanukkah!