Let's face it, Christmas is everywhere. Even in cities heavily populated by Chanukah celebrants, Christmas rules, as the streets are dressed in sparkles and twinkle lights and red and green and fa la la. It's no wonder that cries of "I want to have a Christmas tree!" fill Jewish air space.
The omnipresence of Christmas trappings fuels what is known as the "December Dilemma." Many a Jewish parent recalls lusting after Christmas trees as a child, and that memory is enough to push her over the edge, all the way to the Christmas tree lot. Some go so far as to call said tree a Chanukah Bush or a Holiday Tree, claiming it is just part of the winter season.
Truth be told, it isn't only the Jews who want what isn't theirs at the holidays. Parents have shared with me stories of their Christian kids wanting to celebrate Chanukah because it lasts 8 nights. I once read an article about non-Jewish kids who were feeling deprived because they were not having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Their parents'answer? The Faux Mitzvah! A big party with a d.j. that mimicked the Bar Mitzvah reception, but given for no reason at all. No joke.
(If I were a clergywoman, I would continue here about why Christmas trees and wreaths are a part of Christian observance and why Chanukah and its 8 nights celebrate a victorious freedom fight. But I write from the perspective of a child development and behavior specialist.)
No parent, regardless of religion, wants to be the cause of her child's disappointment. So, in much the same way that parents have a hard time saying no to their kids about many things (No pierced ears, no iPad, no nights at the mall...), unless there is a strong religious conviction, some Jewish parents just give in and get the tree. It's better, they conclude, than being on the receiving end of the whining and the "That's not fair!" cries. But what is the lesson? It certainly isn't to tolerate disappointment.
Children need to learn that you can enjoy something without owning it. Think about the library. You can borrow books, ten at a time, read them over and over for two whole weeks, and then return them.
The Parenting Center I founded was another example. Magnificently stocked with the most interesting, unique, uncommon toys I could find, it was play heaven. Not a day would pass that a parent wouldn't ask where I had purchased the Tree Blocks or another toy that she must have for her child. I explained, "It's really okay for your child to use those sand tools just while he's here at school. He doesn't need to own them." (And I wouldn't share the source, just to drive home the lesson.)
As young children grow, their interest in and experience with the winter holidays change. They learn that everyone celebrates everything differently -- Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa. It is well within the range of normal development for children to want for their own anything (and everything) that appeals to them. Knowing that lots of Jewish families are experiencing the December Dilemma, I offer the following tips:
Keep your own feelings in check. If you feel sad or even guilty, as if you are depriving your child, he will absorb those feelings. You need not feel guilty that Santa isn't a part of your celebration.
Honor your child's feelings. Take this opportunity to walk your child through her/his feelings of disappointment. Life is filled with times when we can't "have it all". Understanding that and giving your child the opportunity to reflect those feelings and help him develop coping skills is a gift. It will teach a tolerance for disappointment which is a critical, life-long lesson.
Play reindeer games. Help your child to learn that you can love and appreciate something without bringing it into your home. You can go to a Christmas tree lot and play hide and seek, as you smell the fragrant trees. You can get yourselves invited to a friend's house to trim their tree. You can count the number of wreaths you see on front doors. You can pile in the car in your pj's and search for Christmas lights all over the city.
Use all eight days. Take pains not to position yourselves as Jews who are "missing out" on something. Rather, be creative in your celebration of Chanukah, creating all kinds of family experiences, rituals and traditions. You have 8 days to celebrate, and on each of these you can do something different and special (a dreidel night; a baking night; a game night; a making-gifts-for-others night; a party night; and a few gift nights, too.)