My daughter is just learning to talk, but I’m already thinking about how I’m going to answer her when she eventually asks the questions that all Jewish kids one day ask: “Why don’t we celebrate Christmas? Why doesn’t Santa come to our house?”
Figuring out how to answer these types of questions is a common challenge among non-Christian parents, as Linda K. Wertheimer pointed out last year on The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, and as Francesca Kaplan Grossman pointed out on the same blog earlier this month, it’s a challenge in mixed religious households as well.
So for today’s hint, I asked Vicky Keston, who is answering just those sorts of questions this holiday season with the help of experts she consulted with, to write a guest post on how she has learned to answer her little non-Christian’s questions about Santa and Christmas.
I still remember asking my mom why Santa Claus didn’t visit our home. I don’t remember her exact reply, but rather I remember the thought of this cool man delivering presents to everyone but Jewish kids. I remember thinking it was so unfair that the team of reindeer carrying the best toys would pass over the Jewish homes – and that this was not the Passover of matzo balls.
My five year old has already noticed how fun Santa Claus and Christmas are. Recently, he asked me if we could celebrate Christmas. When I tried to explain to him that Christmas is about the birth of the son of G*d, and that we, as Jews, don’t believe that G*d had a son, he said, “I understand that we are Jewish. I just want presents.”
So I asked our preschool director, Fern Eisenberg at Congregation Beth Sholom Preschool in San Francisco, how I should respond. She suggested I focus on what the children do have instead of what they don’t. For instance, my kids’ favorite holiday is Purim. It’s a second Halloween for them; they dress up in costumes, make hamantaschen and deliver mishloach manot boxes. But while talking about Purim used to distract my son, now that he’s older, his response has become, “But why can’t we have Purim and Christmas?”
I know how Ms. Eisenberg would suggest answering this one. She wrote in her newsletter that “celebrating Christmas deprives the children of the opportunity of feeling proud of their own heritage.” She recommends instead empathizing with little ones’ feelings: “Sometimes it’s not easy to be Jewish during Christmas, when it seems that so many people are celebrating Christmas. You wish you could have a Christmas tree and decorate it and get up on Christmas morning and find presents under the tree. But Christmas is a Christian holiday. We are Jewish.”
Next, I asked our rabbi, Elana Zeliny, also of Congregation Beth Sholom, how she suggested answering these sorts of questions. She reminded me that both Christmas and Hannukah “are about bringing light into darkness and about celebrating with your family.” She suggested that I tell the children that Santa is the way that Christian families celebrate their holiday, just as Jewish people celebrate our holidays with fun traditions.
So now that I have the advice of experts, what am I telling my five year old? I try to be respectful of other religions, as I’d want my child to be. Telling my kid that Santa is fake could ruin the fun for other children, and an admonishment not to tell would make telling irresistible. So instead, for now, I’m telling my son that we don’t believe in Santa Claus, but that other families do. And I’m already thinking about how I would handle a question about Jesus.
How do you answer these sorts of questions?
Vicky Keston is co-founder and chief executive officer of Gooseling, which makes games like Cavity Dragons designed to help convince children ages two to eight years old to brush their teeth and publishes a parenting blog. Vicky lives in San Francisco with her two year old and five year old.