“Why doesn’t Santa come to our House? Was I naughty?” asked my daughter when she was four years old.
The answer is simple, “We are Jewish.”
But to a 4-year-old, that explanation does not fit the bill and leads to many more questions.
I’m sure I asked the same question to my parents when I was young. However, I was surprisingly not ready with an answer when it was asked of me. I know my Christian friends struggle with how to break the news to their children that Santa is not real, but that doesn’t happen until the kids are older. My daughter was only four.
I should have had a few more years, right?
It is more than just answering this one question; how do I explain to my young children that we don’t follow the same belief system as all of their friends? That everything they see and hear from November 1st through December 26th doesn’t apply to our family? How do I teach them about their heritage and show their pride in Judaism – and not make them feel like outcasts?
How do I assure them that it is ok to be the only Jewish kid in their class?
I grew up in a suburb of Boston. My family was (and still is) Jewish, and so were many of my friends. My community was quite diverse, and just as many of my friends and teachers celebrated Chanukah as Christmas. Even surrounded by fellow Jews, I was still inquisitive and interested in Christmas (FOMO is real, y’all).
I distinctly remember asking my parents how Santa knows not to come to our house. My quick-witted Dad responded with, “Our house is blue, so he knows.” This answer sustained me until I realized one of my Christian friends’ house was also blue — and Santa came down her chimney. Nice try, Dad.
I begged my parents to put up lights and get a tree, but the answer was always: “No, we are Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas.” When I was older, my Mom explained that one day I would probably marry someone Christian (just based on probability), and then I could celebrate Christmas.
Even after leaving the Northeast to go to college in Nashville — yes-Tennessee, yes-Deep South and yes-Bible Belt — I ended up meeting and marrying my now ex-husband, who was also Jewish. I explained my desire to celebrate Christmas to him, but he agreed with my parents. We shouldn’t have lights and a tree because we were Jewish.
After settling in Pensacola, I quickly realized that the Jewish community here is very small.
Unlike my childhood experience, my girls are usually the only Jewish kid in their respective classes (cue Adam Sandler singing “When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree…”).
Because of this, we welcome opportunities for our family to share about the Jewish traditions with classmates and friends (thanks, Grammy, for being the go-to Chanukah guest teacher). I, in turn, encourage the girls to learn about other religions and traditions. I am not offended if they bring home a decorated Christmas ornament or are humming a Christmas carol they learned at school. I try to use those as opportunities for discussion and learning.
However, as any mother can relate, I do worry about my children feeling left out.
I was not prepared that day to answer my daughter’s question. And honestly, five years later, I still get anxious every year around Christmas time. I worry about how to make my kids feel comfortable being different. I struggle with making sure they don’t feel isolated. And I work to make sure I am doing enough, so they feel pride in their own holidays and beliefs. We are thankful to be members of Temple Beth El, and the girls look forward to Sunday School each week to learn more about Judaism.
Over time, I have learned that the most important thing is being open to discussing the conflicting emotions of the season while showing my kids the amazing gifts Judaism and our family traditions have to offer. I also try to take advantage of this opportunity to learn about other religions and share about our own.
Bring on the latkes, dreidels, and menorahs (and maybe a little eggnog, carols, and gingerbread cookies too).