Recently, Jennifer Miller's son came to his mother with a problem. The boy sings in his school's choir, and their current program is full of Christmas carols. But, because he is Jewish, Noah, 7, thought he shouldn't participate in the chorus.
"I explained to him that even though Christmas is not our holiday, he can still sing and enjoy the songs," says Miller, 39, of Mountain View, Calif. And then she proceeded to sing one of her favorites, "Merry Christmas Bells," with her son.
Many Jews call it an inherent dilemma: how and when to explain to their children what is arguably the nation's biggest holiday and why they don't celebrate it inside their homes. Many parents and religious experts believe that educating children at a young age about the differences between Christmas and Hanukkah, which wrapped up Dec. 9, is the best way to address the issue.
Each year, Miller and her husband, Adin, throw a big Hanukkah party complete with lights, decorations and spinning dreidel to show their sons, including 4-year-old Jesse, how festive Hanukkah is.
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Part of the reason the Millers showcase Hanukkah, which is considered a minor Jewish holiday, is because of Jennifer's memories of growing up as the only Jewish kid on the block in her Fort Worth neighborhood.
Every December, Miller says she remembers thinking how big, bright and festive all the other houses on the block looked, while hers felt dark.
"My mom would put out one of those little electric menorahs in the window and a banner that said 'Happy Hanukkah,' " Miller recalls. "I remember sort of feeling left out. I didn't want a Christmas tree, but I remember feeling sad. Now, we try to make it a bigger deal so our kids can learn to be proud of it."
Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kole Emeth, a conservative synagogue in Palo Alto, Calif., says it's easy to fall into the trap of building up Hanukkah to compete with Christmas.
"But there's no reason to do that. It's a minor holiday for us," he says of the eight-day celebration that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. "Even the practice of gift gifting associated with Hanukkah is a post-World War II tradition created here in the United States as American Jews became more integrated into the culture. It's not really a practice outside of the U.S."
Rabbi Booth recommends beginning the Christmas talk with kids as young as 3. That's what he did with his children, Josh, Naomi and Maytal, especially since their mother, Carol, is a convert to Judaism.
"We're very clear on the fact that when we're visiting a family member and sharing in their religious holiday, it's the same as when they come and be a part of our Passover Seder or Shabbat dinner," he says. "You must make that distinction early. We're not trying to live an isolationist life. I think it's great for kids to learn about and be able to see the different practices and beliefs other people in the community have."
The issue didn't come up for Josie and Ben Levi of Oakland, Calif., until their children wrapped up Jewish preschool and joined the public school system. After that, it seemed Christmas was everywhere. And both of their daughters, Talia, 6, and Maya, 9, asked, "Why can't we do Christmas?"
"We tell them that different people celebrate different things and it's important to respect everyone's beliefs," says Josie, 39. "We let them participate in decorating a tree at a friend's house, but it doesn't mean we're going to midnight Mass." The Levis haven't addressed the actual religious differences with their children because they haven't come up yet, Josie says.
Other families tackle those issues head on. When their young daughters comment on the pretty Christmas decorations lining Broadway Plaza, Janna Lipman Weiss and Josh Weiss of Walnut Creek try to teach them the distinction between the marketing and religious aspects of Christmas.
"For a kid, it feels like the world has been taken over by this enormous marketing juggernaut, and, by the way, you're not included," Lipman Weiss says. "So we try to teach them to appreciate the pretty lights and remind them that the stores' job is to make money. They don't care about people's religion. But for our friends who are Christian, that's not what Christmas is about."
Lipman Weiss has explained the basic truth to Simone, 5, and Maya, 8: That they don't celebrate Christmas because Jews don't believe that Jesus was the son of God and Christians do. And the holiday signifies the birth of Jesus.
Rather than blow up Hanukkah because it falls near Christmas, Lipman Weiss also explains to her kids that while Christians only have two major holidays, Easter and Christmas, the Jewish calendar is filled with festivities, from Purim in February and Passover in April to Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot later in the year.
For Rabbi Elon Sunshine of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, that is the easiest way to have the Christmas talk without having it.
"If a family is connected to the celebration of other Jewish holidays throughout the year, then they already know the special and festive times that go on for Jews," he says. "So Christmas time doesn't need to become one of lacking or missing out. It's just who we are and what we do."