Why Interfaith Kids Love Hanukkah (Even If They Get Christmas Too)

Last night on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart was bemoaning the fact that his interfaith kids ditched Hanukkah as soon as they found out about Christmas (his wife is Catholic). I suspect this was just schtick, or perhaps he’s not trying hard enough on the Hanukkah end of things.

Interfaith parents tend to fear the commercial and emotional juggernaut that is Christmas in America. Whether they are raising their kids with both religions, or raising them as Jews with inevitable exposure to Christmas through the extended family, it is hard to believe at first that Hanukkah can, well, hold a candle to Christmas.

I know, it shouldn’t be a popularity contest. Christmas is second only to Easter in theological importance for Christians. Hanukkah, well, it’s a celebration of a military victory that occurred long after the Torah was written. So it’s probably not in the top ten Jewish holidays in terms of religious significance.

But here’s the funny thing: children love Hanukkah. Whether or not they get eight nights of presents, they love Hanukkah. Whether or not they celebrate Christmas, they love Hanukkah. I grew up celebrating both, my children grew up celebrating both, and I can tell you that you really don’t have to fear the Hanukkah versus Christmas smackdown. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Given half a chance, most children actually love a quiet moment of contemplation with the nuclear family, with the lights dimmed, and the allure of fire. That’s why our favorite memories of Christmas may be decorating the tree, not opening the presents. Hanukkah provides eight opportunities for this magical moment. Even if a couple of nights get lost to busy schedules or Hanukkah parties, most folks can pull off more than one night together gathered around the menorah.
  2. Kids love the actual lighting of the candles. They love the routine, the anticipation of one more candle each night, getting their hands on the candles and controlling the fire at an age when you otherwise probably wouldn’t let them anywhere near such a thing.
  3. Kids love latkes. They’re fried, they’re bland, they come with applesauce. What’s not to like? Whether you bleed grating your knuckles into the potatoes, or use a box-mix to make the mushy variety like I do, kids (and grownups) devour them. I don’t fry anything the rest of the year—it’s messy and fattening. But for Hanukkah, I fry, and the kids go wild when they smell the sizzling oil. It may not be that healthy, but if the dinner consists of latkes, applesauce and salad, you don’t end up overstuffed and groaning like you do after Thanksgiving or Passover. It’s a perfect weeknight meal.
  4. Kids really do appreciate savoring one gift each night, as much as they also appreciate an orgy of gifts on Christmas. Our family tradition is to hunt for the Hanukkah present, which creates huge excitement for little kids. Some nights, they know it will be a “small gift” night, maybe Silly Putty or a roll of lifesavers. It’s enough, and they still have the thrill of hunting for it.
  5. Eight nights leaves room to think about tzedakah, or charity. Early on, we declared one or more nights the nights of “giving to others” in lieu of getting gifts (in part to offset the additional gifts on Christmas). So Hanukkah also becomes an opportunity for them to feel good about giving back. If you instill this idea early on, they actually crave the good feelings that come from giving. One year, I gave each of the small cousins, who did not grow up with this “give to others night” tradition, a single dime-store plastic animal to represent the rabbit or chicken they were giving to Heifer International, to make the idea more concrete and take the sting out of “not getting a present that night.” They played for hours with those tiny animals.

So don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.

Happy Hanukkah!

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

11 Replies to “Why Interfaith Kids Love Hanukkah (Even If They Get Christmas Too)”

  1. very interesting…a few comments, if i might:

    a) hanukah celebrates TWO things – the military victory you mentioned, AND the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days for the Temple when it should’ve lasted only one. both are part and parcel of the facts as they happened, as reported in the Talmud, the books of the Maccabees, and elsewhere. The rabbis and all religious leaders agree and have included both in the religious aspects of the holiday.

    b) and so, it IS in the top ten jewish holidays in terms of religious significance…. (it is NOT number one, for sure, but top ten, yes!)

    c) latkes are good…for sure! and in israel, the traditional food is a jelly doughnut! kids really love those….

    d) tzedakah is not really ‘charity’….it includes some aspects thereof, but is really different. tzedakah is based on ‘tzedek’, meaning justice, doing things right, etc and tzedakah is a commandment. that is, jews are commanded to do it.

    charity is from the latin ‘caritus’, meaning to care. and so, charity is based upon giving because you care about the person or situation in need. with tzedakah, you have no choice – you must give, even if you don’t ‘care’ about that person or situation….

    e) excellent to use at least one night of chanukah for tzedakah, and giving of gifts to others. well done and keep up the good work!

    for some other tzedakah ideas:


    happy hanukah,

    arnie draiman

  2. As a practicing Christian, I have always loved Hanukkah too. When I was allowed, I included talking about it in my class. Oh lovely that so many celebrations are all celebrations of light.

  3. SKM, You have reinvigorated my waning interest in celebrating BOTH – I had given up on Christmas, but in truth the shiny tinsel has its tiny appeal. It’s just such a big commercially fueled DAY.

    To me it’s gut-level-powerful that each night of Hannukah, the light grows stronger.

    From Marika – born Christian, now “self converted” Jew

  4. Sue, you make the stuff of my basest conclusions sound so high-minded! My take on your points:
    1. No matter how you gloss it, Jon Stewart’s right: Forced to choose, my dual-holiday kids, like most, wouldn’t blink before choosing Christmas over Hanukah. Jewish kids — including me, as a child — can’t choose, of course, but still would opt for the Baby Jesus over Judah Maccabee: Better story, sweeter food, pretty decor and MORE PRESENTS.
    2. What you so attractively call “the allure of light,” I call pyromania. You’re right: Kids love flame. Once they’re old enough to light their own candles, Hanukah takes on more “meaning.”
    3. Hunting for gifts? I thought my mom made that up! She wrote really good scavenger rhymes. My clever sister in NJ creates rhebuses and crosswords and multi-level puzzles I can’t follow for her super-smart kids. Me? I like to hide stuff in the bathtubs or the dryer.
    4. That charity-night thing seems to be catching on all over the place, too. And, despite all the hype about giving, that’s a tough one to carry out on Christmas. Also, I’ve enjoyed seeing my kids mature in the way they choose their charities each year.

    I’ll close by recalling the many years I sweated (literally) as “Latke Mom” at my kids’ preschool. My wares never proved less popular than in the pre-K class that universally rejected the pancakes with one exception: A boy just arrived from Japan, speaking no English yet and undoubtedly mystified by the ritual, defied his peer group by slurping up both apple sauce and sour cream with his latkes, and coming back for FOURTHS! That was the last year I fried for the masses. After that, it ws chocolate gelt all the way.

  5. Thanks for this terrific post. I think those with experience with and wisdom about interfaith matters such as this need to sing it from the rooftops.

    As I’m sure you know, “The Holidays” have long been a sticky wicket for Jews. Part of the problem, I believe, comes from the collective packing in of too much meaning into them. Yes, Christmas can be overwhelming for those that don’t celebrate it, but once one takes a deep breath and looks at the situation with a clearer eye, Christmas isn’t some kind of cultural or religious “imperialism” — it’s simply a holiday, like most holidays, that means different things to different people, a celebration that adds — not subtracts — from our cultural life.

    For many years I had a hang-up about Christmas, in particular (you guessed it) the Christmas Tree. The first year my partner and I had a CT in the house was a tough year for me…but it was about my hangups, not anything wrong with the CT, which for her was a symbol and reminder of family togetherness and good times.

    As long as children know who they are — which requires that their parents know who they themselves are — celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah not only poses no problem, it presents a great opportunity to celebrate the best of both faiths.

  6. What a fabulous bunch of comments! I love you guys!

    Arnie–thanks for adding a lot of Hanukkah facts that didn’t fit into my post, it’s great for parents trying to deepen their Hanukkah celebrations to learn as much as possible. Okay, okay, I guess Hanukkah’s in the top ten, but not the top five, let’s try to list them, help me out folks…Shabbat, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Sukkoth, Shavuot…so it’s definitely not in the top six. I don’t know where it ranks within the group of Tu Bishvat, Simchat Torah, Tisha Bav, Lag Ba’omer…but I group it in my mind with Purim, as a more political/historical, post-Torah holiday. Yeah, Shabbat is a trick answer, but I love the idea that it’s the most important. As a woman, I’m also very enamored of the idea of the monthly celebration of the new moon festival of Rosh Chodesh as a kind of red-tent solidarity coffee klatsch with drumming and such. But that’s a more recent phenomenon (with ancient roots).

    Mandy–Okay, you win, yes, if they had to CHOOSE they might choose Christmas. But the point of my entire blog is not choosing…so there. And research shows a large proportion of interfaith families, even if they are scrupulously raising their kids Jewish, are incorporating Christmas. Birthday of an important Jewish rabbi anybody??

    Rogue–Yes, it is often hard for Christian partners to understand why the tree, or lights outside the house, can be so difficult. I’m not saying these aren’t real issues. We recently had a great adult discussion group on this in our interfaith families community…I will try to blog it before Christmas.

  7. Great points. For us, the dreidel is another big attraction. My partner’s family tradition is to play for m & m’s until the “pot” is empty, and then everyone arranges their candy on the table to make a picture.

  8. Reblogged this on Following Ruth and commented:
    I’m thinking now about how to incorporate Jewish holidays into our family routine, since the matriarch (moi?) is converting. The biggie, of course, is Hanukkah/Christmas. This post has some nifty ideas about the subject.

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