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

It’s November. Christmas is almost a month away. But even before the Halloween clearance candy was actually cleared, tinsel and plastic Santas were popping up at the ends of the supermarket aisles. “Why are they playing Jingle Bells already?” asked Zoe, in a not so patient voice, as we gathered bags of cranberries for our Thanksgiving meal.

And thus began this year’s round of what some families refer to as the “December Dilemma.” The expression means different things to different families, but it almost always refers to a struggle with mainstream culture’s enormous emphasis on Christmas, which, as we all know, is not exactly a “this is some people’s sacred and meaningful holiday” kind of emphasis.

For Jewish families, the December Dilemma might mean figuring out how to explain to your children why everyone is wishing them a Merry Xmas or asking them what they want Santa to bring. Or it might mean helping them decide whether or not to sing along with the Christmas carols at their “winter assembly.” (I recall mouthing the objectionable words when I was a child.) It often means knowing how to respond to their feelings of exclusion or even jealousy.


For interfaith families, or families where one parent converted from Christianity, the December Dilemma can be thornier and more emotionally complex. It might mean deciding where to spend December 25th; or  explaining to non Jewish in laws why you don’t have a tree, or explaining to Jewish in laws why you do, and steeling one’s self against their judgments either way.

Christmas, and all the symbols associated with Chirstmas, can be extraordinarily emotional for both Jews and non-Jews, but in profoundly different ways, and more remarkably, in ways that are often terrifically hard to explain to one another. I recently spoke with Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, who is coming to our little town of Northampton this weekend for an afternoon entitled “Chanukah and Christmas – A Parenting/Grandparenting Conversation.” She crystallized this issue with great insight. “I think in many cases Jewish partners and families see the Christmas tree as a cross, and it’s simply not that for an awful lot of non-Jews, especially those who grew up in secular homes and only celebrated Christmas. It was about food and family gathering.” In other words (to be clear: mine, not hers) when you say “Merry Christmas” to me, I might hear “Won’t you accept Jesus as Lord?”, when all you really meant was, “I hope you find a way to add light to your life during this dark time of year.” I’m not suggesting it’s right or wrong, but it is an awfully helpful perspective.


I’m of the opinion that December isn’t so much a dilemma as an opportunity. This time of year offers a chance for our kids to notice that our family is, in Diamant’s words, “slightly counter cultural” – and not just because we don’t have cable or smart phones. Being Jewish seems so normal to my children, especially as students at a Jewish day school, that they don’t always realize that we’re one of the only families on the block lighting Shabbat candles and eschewing bacon. Come Christmas, they notice and they ask. And we talk about it.

It’s also the one time of year that we really share traditions with our non-Jewish relatives. The girls help Grandma and Pip decorate their tree down in Connecticut, and Grandma and Pip come up for an evening of latkes and candle lighting. The girls get to teach a little about our holiday, and learn a little more about theirs, discovering the many things that are different, but also, as Diamant explained “that there are many similarities. Hanukkah and Christmas share a universal insight, lighting candles against the darkness and magical thinking.”


And if you’re wondering whether all this exposure leads to any confusion for my girls – well, check out this piece I wrote a few years ago about the time I caught them “playing Christians.”

How will you make the most of the “December opportunity?” Please share your comments – I always learn so much from your ideas and suggestions.

our kitchen all gussied up for Hanukkah



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posted November 30, 2011 at 11:00 am

i agree wholeheartedly — there is much december wierdness! we do not put up a tree, but do help a neighbor to decorate one, which we have found to be a really nice tradition. i’m all for the holiday spirit, but its always nicer somehow when chanukah and christmas overlap.

my question is how to respond to well-meaning, usually older individuals (whom we don’t know) who ask my child questions like, “what will you ask santa to bring you this year?”

my child usually responds “we are jewish,” which causes the question-poser to become uncomfortable. i am looking for a better response. any suggestions??

thanks in advance.

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posted November 30, 2011 at 11:09 am

I actually think it’s a great response. maybe someone else has a better suggestion?

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posted November 30, 2011 at 11:23 am

my younger daughter also says “we’re jewish.” and it does make people uncomfortable. not sure what better answer there is, tho; i too would love to hear other suggestions! my older daughter smiles and says nothing…but then, the kind of people who tend to ask 10-year-olds what santa is getting for them tend not to be the kind of people who listen to the answer.

i think it might work to have the kids say, “we’re jewish, but i would love playmobil for hanukah.” this lets the adult take either the “jewish” conversational bait or the “playmobil” bait, without putting them on the spot. of course, it also boils december down into its most commercial essence, but since that’s our culture (and a good teachable moment), i think the virtue of not making someone uncomfortable outweighs the truth of “my parents prefer not to make hanukah, a minor holiday, all about PRESENTS, especially given the values of our culture” which basically makes you and your kids sound like self-righteous jerkballs.

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Ellen Zimmerman

posted November 30, 2011 at 5:29 pm

I really appreciate this whole article. The part that really resonated for me, though, was the statement that Christmas trees can be family-gathering symbols, rather than hugely religious proclamations. That realization came a few years ago. Love how Anita Diamant phrased it:
“I think in many cases Jewish partners and families see the Christmas tree as a cross, and it’s simply not that for an awful lot of non-Jews, especially those who grew up in secular homes and only celebrated Christmas. It was about food and family gathering.”
(Am a big fan of her books!)

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posted November 30, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Although I am not yet Jewish(am in the process of deciding to convert) even if I do convert I still plan on celebrating secular Christmas along with Hanukkah.

I grew up on secular Christmas(never in my LIFE felt an attraction to the Christian Christmas) so even after conversion idk if I could just give up over 25yrs of “The Tree”. We will be one(hopfully!!) of those Jews who has the Menorah in their window AND the Christmas tree.

This year I am introducing 3 different ways of the December Holidays to our daughters: Secular Christmas, Christian Christmas(my MIL is Christian) and Hanukkah. Although by the end of it all, I have a feeling I am going to be more drawn to Judaism than I ever have of any religion before.
I look forward to reading more from you and I wish you all a Happy Hanukkah.

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Jennifer B

posted November 30, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I L*O*V*E Christmas…just not in MY house!!!

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posted December 2, 2011 at 12:37 am

We’re interfaith, or like others here one Jewish, one raised with secular Christmas (me). We imbue Hanukkah with more ritual and reflection and have been to CBI for the festivities there several times, whereas Christmas is mostly about the one day with presents and my family and a dinner together (though we do enjoy having the decorated tree for a few weeks). We don’t attach any religious meaning to Christmas, because that’s not what either of us was raised with. I do have Jewish friends who would be very uncomfortable with a Christmas tree in their house, even though it’s a pagan symbol that got carried along with the Christian festival. I’m glad Anita Diamant is finding a way to communicate that that’s a cultural trapping of the holiday, not a religious one. I’m not attached to “Merry Christmas” and I fight against “Christmas” parties in secular organizations and squirm at “Secret Santa” – but don’t take away my tree :) The smell permeating the house… the ornaments handed down through the generations or from meaningful events in my life, or just expressing my whimsy and taste… the family trek to go cut down a tree… it may not be religious for me, but it’s still important to me.

Who knows what our kids will want to share when they are grown up – what mix of our Hanukkah and Christmas traditions will stick with them, and how their spiritual beliefs will tie it all together or not!

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Frume Sarah

posted December 5, 2011 at 10:43 pm

In other words (to be clear: mine, not hers) when you say “Merry Christmas” to me, I might hear “Won’t you accept Jesus as Lord?”, when all you really meant was, “I hope you find a way to add light to your life during this dark time of year.” I’m not suggesting it’s right or wrong, but it is an awfully helpful perspective.

What a great way to reframe this “seasonal” greeting, Amy.

Thanks so much for sharing how your family approaches these holidays!!!

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posted December 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

Anita Diamant is so right on with the comment about some Jews seeing a Christmas tree as cross. This is so right.

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Miss K

posted December 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm

In Scandinavia we say “Jul” and not Christmas. As in Yule, as in the pagan holiday that has been celebrated looong before Jesus was born. We’re by far one of the most secular corners of the world, and we mix old traditions with the new. In my family Christmas (Jul) has very little to do with religion, although we love the songs. So this constant “Jesus is the reason for the season” (which obviously isn’t true because after he was born, the celebration of Yule/Saturnalia was forbidden for many years!)-thing is strange to me. Jesus was born in the spring, and well…. he has nothing to do with the days getting longer again. Solistice. Mid winter, light in the darkest month of the year, spending time with family, eating good food = Jul. I wish you a Happy Chanukah, and a good Jul, as we say in Norway :)

Greetings from an atheist Norwegian with a special interest in religions (strange as it may seem), particularily Judaism :)

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