Family Matters

Holiday Identity Crisis? Kids Celebrating Hanukkah in a Santa-Crazed World

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It’s that time of year when preschoolers churn out painting after painting of Christmas trees and stockings. But never did I think a child of mine would bring home that genre of artwork. Because we’re Jewish — and not the kind of post-modernist Jews who erect Christmas trees so their kids don’t feel left out — menorahs are more our style.

My older two children attended Jewish preschool, which so successfully insulated them from Christmas-mania that my middle daughter, a month shy of her fourth birthday, once decisively identified a display of chocolate Santas as Noah, that guy from the Ark. In a piece I wrote about that episode for The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, I commented, “It’s not in my nature to allow my kids to wander this world deluded. But in this instance, I didn’t have the heart to correct her. Why should I? She’ll learn on her own soon enough.”

Three years and a cross-country move later, my youngest, who’s now about the same age as her older sister was when she confused one bearded guy for another, is enrolled in a fabulous secular preschool. Their big message is one of inclusion, which means they teach everything. The kids decorate Christmas trees and stockings, but they also spin dreidels and make menorahs. The holiday of Kwanzaa gets its due too.

As a result, my youngest knows far more about Christmas and Santa than her older siblings did at her age. She proclaims that her favorite song is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a composition which my grandfather liked to fondly recall a little me belting out one Sabbath morning at his synagogue. (I wasn’t a graduate of Jewish preschool either.) Meanwhile, her 4-year-old friends learn about her heritage and traditions. It seems that everyone’s better off for it. As I often tell my kids, life would be a whole lot more boring if everyone looked and acted the same. Differences are to be celebrated, not sublimated.

MORE: Study: Religious Folks Have a Sunnier Outlook

In actuality, it feels like a much more realistic depiction of what the world looks like. Most people are not Jewish (at least outside New York!), and it’s fine that my daughter is realizing this much sooner than her brother and sister did.

And yet, it remains unsettling to have strangers assume that my family celebrates Christmas. As Dec. 25 comes closer, it seems that no cashier, receptionist or librarian can resist asking my kids what they’ve requested from Santa. We don’t have a scripted response ready, so usually what follows is a moment or two of awkward silence. The person who’s excitedly asked the question smiles; I smile back. It feels a bit Scrooge-like to burst their yuletide bubble and share that Santa doesn’t shimmy down our chimney. On the other hand, I don’t want to play along so as not to make them feel uncomfortable; I want to teach my children to be proud of their traditions, of their differences.

Often, when my kids don’t answer, the person asking will assume they’re just being shy. Sometimes, as happened yesterday, a particularly perceptive questioner will clue in to what’s going on. “Is Christmas not the holiday you celebrate?” asked my 6-year-old’s doctor.

Relieved to be let off the hook, my daughter smiled and shook her head no.

Meanwhile, my son, who turns 9 next week, finds the ignorant, if well-intentioned, anticipatory questioning an unfortunate commentary on society. “It makes me sad because it means they don’t know there’s a world where people don’t celebrate Christmas and believe in Santa,” he says.

MORE: Why Hannukah is the Most Celebrated Jewish Holiday in America

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve got nothing against Christmas or those who celebrate it. My family appreciates the glitz of bedazzled trees and houses as much as anyone. We love watching The Nutcracker. The spirit of the season is something that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of religion.

But it can be tough to compete with all the chatter about toy wish lists and Christmas cookies. I don’t even try. Hanukkah, after all, is a pretty minor — albeit really fun — holiday, and I prefer not to liken it to the Jewish Christmas. But can dreidels and latkes really compare to mythical reindeer and a ruddy-cheeked fella in a red-and-white ensemble?

In the end, it turns out I have nothing to worry about.

“Do you wish you celebrated Christmas?” I asked my youngest, the prolific generator of construction-paper stockings and Christmas tree crafts.

“No,” she immediately answered, inspired by her love of chocolate. “Because then I wouldn’t get gelt!”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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