Playing Christians

from the December e-newsletter of The PJ Library:

My daughters begin asking for Chanukah books at bedtime early in the year – even before the supermarkets start piping in Christmas music, which happens, I believe, in August. Last night, Zoe, my three year old, chose Chanukah Lights Everywhere. It’s not so much a story as a sweet stroll through the eight nights of Chanukah. On each night, the narrator notices lights that correspond to the number of candles on his menorah – on the second night, two headlights pull up to his home; on the fourth night, four gas flames burn beneath pans of latkes; and so on.
When we turned the page to the seventh night, we found an illustration of a house decorated with a wreath and seven red candles.  Zoe and Ella both clapped their hands gleefully. “Look! It’s Christmas!” shouted Ella. “Christmas? Where’s Santa?” demanded Zoe, pulling the book from my hands for a closer look.
As you may have surmised, my little Jewish girls, who wear “shaine maidele” t-shirts, and castigate me for forgetting to recite the bedtime shma, love Christmas time. They don’t know much about the holiday, but they know it’s special and it’s fancy, or at least the little-girl version of fancy, which my grandmother used to describe as ongepotchket. Twinkling lights, plush red velvet, and men with beards that look suspiciously like their father’s (but more neatly groomed) passing out candy canes on street corners. What’s not to like?
My own relationship with Christmas is more complicated. When I was young, being a Jew at Christmas felt like having a crush on my best friend’s boyfriend. I couldn’t decide whether to steer clear of all of the places where the couple might turn up (as in, everywhere I wanted to go) or to go anyway and stand wistfully by as they held hands and gushed over one another. Come December, I would sometimes avoid and sometimes seek out the places where Christmas was in full display, half-envious and half-delighted by my proximity to the glitz.
I generally go out of my way to expose my children to a variety of cultures. We’ve attended Chinese New Year celebrations and pow-wows; we eat miso soup, curries, and pad thai; read legends from Latin America and listen to music from Africa. But my approach to Christmas has been different. I treat it more like a gateway drug – serve a few glasses of eggnog, or turn on Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and next thing I know, my children will be signing up for the convent.
So last year, when my mother invited us to the Nutcracker Ballet, I labored over the decision. We’ve explained why my husband’s parents celebrate Christmas (they’re Catholic) with no ensuing identity crises, but what flood gates might be opened by bringing Christmas (and so enticing a version of Christmas!) into our immediate family’s lives? Would my children beg for a Christmas tree? Start writing to Santa? Demand fruitcake instead of latkes?
I’m no tyrant. Of course, we went to the Nutcracker. The day after the performance I overheard my daughters playing in the sunroom. “What do you want for Christmas?” asked Ella. “I don’t know, what do you want for Christmas?” asked Zoe. On the table were several drawings of large, decorated trees. I drew a deep breath. “What are you doing, girls?” I asked, steeling myself for their response. “Oh,” replied Ella casually, “We’re playing Christians.”
Granted, it’s a somewhat unusual game. (I can’t imagine what the rules are.) But it pointed out to me that my children are so secure in who they are, so completely comfortable in their Jewish identity, that being Christian to them is like being Cinderella. It’s a perfectly wonderful thing to be, but it’s not who they are. That’s when I remembered that once I fell in love, it wasn’t hard to be around my friend’s boyfriend any more. My girls are in love with being Jewish; being around others celebrating Christmas can’t possibly diminish their joy.
When Zoe finally handed me back the copy of Chanukah Lights Everywhere, we read the page accompanying the picture of Christmas. The narrator explains “Chanukah is also about the joy of different religions sharing a street.”  On these long dark nights, perhaps all of the lights we see, whether they be headlights, Christmas lights, or the candles in the menorah are illuminating a path towards peace and hope. Season’s Greetings, from my family to yours.
(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and piecesThe PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.  To learn more, go to

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posted November 23, 2009 at 9:31 am


posted November 23, 2009 at 10:52 am

I can promise you one thing: No child will *ever* ask for fruitcake instead of latkes.

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posted November 23, 2009 at 10:56 am

what a great post. thank you. (love your blog and appreciate you blogging so honestly about how you walk the walk.)

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posted November 23, 2009 at 11:06 am


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posted November 23, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Love it, especially the analogy to the crush on the best friend’s boyfriend.

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posted November 23, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Wonderful. You have created a Jewish home full of love and activities and joy and celebration of Jewishness for your girls.
There is no yearning for ‘something special’ elsewhere, because they have it at home!
That is the way to do it, in galut. Of course, the best thing would be to make aliyah, where Jewish holidays are also the national holidays. But not everyone can do that.

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posted November 23, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Go you! You’ve clearly done a great job fostering positive Jewish identities.
The toddler LOVES that book – have you noticed that each page also has the corresponding number of cats, including a “partial” cat for the Shamash?
But I have to flinch every time I hear some message about Chanukah’s message of religious tolerance. Soooo not the case. Zealots vs. compromisers. Forced conversions. Bloody massacres. Whee!
Guess we’ll save that part of the story for the teen years.

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Frume Sarah

posted November 23, 2009 at 5:15 pm

I love your analogy. I have often compared Christmas to the Prom. Where everyone is invited except for me. This is even better!!!
Thanks for sharing this snippet of your life with us.

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posted November 23, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Wow, I feel like this comment thread is a who’s who of Jewish mommy bloggers. When do we all get to do lunch? Or better yet, martinis?

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posted November 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

Great post Ames!

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Fran Manushkin

posted November 24, 2009 at 10:37 pm

What a wonderful post! What adorable girls! I want to be adopted by you.

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posted November 30, 2009 at 9:41 am

Thank you thank you, I needed to read this so badly. I have to wee girls (ages 1 and 3) and worry so much about the lure and fascination with Christmas… this post was very reassuring. Again, thank you.

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posted November 30, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Love your analogy of Christmas as having a crush on your best friend’s boyfriend. I’ve always thought of Christmas as being like someone else’s birthday — I’ll come to your party, I’ll wish you a happy birthday, and I’ll even bring you a present. But, it’s not my birthday, so please don’t wish me “happy birthday” (even when I say these words to you) and please don’t give me birthday presents.

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posted December 1, 2009 at 3:23 am

I live in Arizona where being Jewish can be a pretty lonely endeavor yet things are going fine. I’ve always told my kids (ages 14 and 10) that Christmas has nothing to do with us since it’s the “birthday” celebration of someone worshipped by another religion. With this reasoning, a creche on the front lawn of a neighbor’s house becomes a great example of it not just being pretty lights but a religious holiday for a religion not our own.

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posted December 4, 2009 at 9:51 am

Thank you for this. A friend sent me here b/c I’ve been nervous about Christmas this year. I have twin girls who turn 4 next week. We do the PJ LIbrary, too and I think I just need to trust them more…but I worry that the lights and trees and the fat man in the red suit will lure them away from me/Judaism…

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Jennifer B

posted November 30, 2011 at 7:20 pm

This was insightful and helpful (and adorable, re: your girls!) – thanks for linking it from your recent post!!
My kids have been asking me what would happen if some Jewish kids pretended to be “Christmas” to trick Santa into bringing them presents…oy and vey. 😉

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Pingback: December dilemma or December opportunity? (featuring an interview with Anita Diamant about Hanukkah and Christmas!) - Homeshuling


posted November 15, 2012 at 12:27 am

It could be worse. My favorite childhood game was “Playing Hurricane.” We took up to two hours to set up an entire town and then in a frenzy knocked down everything when the hurricane hit. And we played it all the time–me, siblings, friends, etc. Be glad you don’t have a huge mess to clean up!

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