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.