Parenting for the Perplexed: When kids feel pangs of Christmas envy, keep the focus simple

Let’s face it, for a 4-year-old, Chanukah does not hold a candle to Christmas. A floor-to-ceiling tree with all the ornaments vs. your menorah (even if it’s a really beautiful one); a jolly, fat bearded man sliding down the chimney with a sack of presents vs. a top that spins; a pile of gift boxes you can swim in vs. a present for each of eight nights. OK, maybe Chanukah has the edge when it comes to presents, but barely.

So what’s a Jewish parent to do?

First, and most important, don’t panic and don’t overreact. If “Christmas envy” becomes a focus of tremendous family pressure, whatever you say or do will inevitably communicate to your child that Christmas is a huge deal. Instead, you want to let your child know that it’s a nice thing that other people do.

Here are some suggestions.

1. Answer your child’s questions honestly, simply and nonchalantly. When he asks “Why don’t we have Christmas?” don’t cover 4,000 years of Jewish history. Simply say: “Christians celebrate Christmas. We are Jewish, so we don’t.”

Then leave an opening for your child to tell you what’s on his mind. Is it envy of his friends in preschool talking about presents? Did he hear something worrisome about the “naughty” vs. “nice” (which does plug right into 4- to 6-year-olds’ nascent conscience and sense of justice)? Answer each question  right to the point, without unnecessary elaborations.

2. Arrange with friends or neighbors who celebrate Christmas for your child to come over and help decorate their tree. Have her bring small presents that you wrap together for the neighbors’ children and ask them to have a small one waiting for her. She can open it as soon as you get home and you can say, “Lucky you, you don’t have to wait till Christmas.”

This scenario also applies, of course, to your own family members who celebrate Christmas — do it at their homes.

3. Find an activity to do as a family that emphasizes helping people, whether they celebrate Chanukah (such as delivering food to home-bound seniors in the Jewish community through JFCS offices) or Christmas (participating in a local toy drive or serving Christmas Day dinner at a church or shelter). Whatever you pick, have your child create her own holiday cards to add to the delivery.

4. Within your family, emphasize making over buying. Children (and adults, too!) get much more meaning and pleasure from making gifts than from buying them. Grandparents and aunts and uncles are, of course, the best recipients of these creations.

5. In celebrating the eight days of Chanukah, plan on doing something special together each night, as a family and with friends. One novel idea that may bring wonderful surprises is an official night of “doing nothing.” It’s a family evening together using no gadgets, not even books, to entertain yourself and your children. You’ll be amazed by the creativity and fun!

6. Consider joining in on the cherished-by-many ”Jewish Christmas” tradition of a movie and Chinese dinner. Or make up your own ritual to celebrate that the stores are all closed, the streets are empty and, here in the Bay Area, there is no snow to shovel.

If your family includes grandparents/

in-laws/cousins who celebrate Christmas, you might ask them to tone things down while your child is very young. But if this will be a bone of contention, just bite your tongue and think up your own family’s way to balance Chanukah and Christmas.

My friends in Vermont — he is Jewish, she is Christian— did just that. On Christmas Eve they bundled up their four small children and went into the woods, cut down a small tree and hauled it home on their sled. They decorated it with homemade ornaments only, and put presents under it. On Christmas Day, everyone opened them.

The next morning they all got up very early and, with equal pomp and circumstance, hauled the tree out and heaved it onto the garbage in “the tossing of the tree” ritual.

Christmas envy or not, I hope you find your own pleasures and peace in this sometimes fraught season.


Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected]

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.