The educator at my synagogue tells a funny story she’s heard in different forms over the years. In it, Santa asks a child what he wants for Christmas. Seated on Santa’s lap, the child looks up and says, “But Santa, I’m Jewish!” Santa replies, in a whisper, “Can I tell you something? So am I! Why don’t you tell me what you want for Hanukkah instead?”
That story captures so much of the lighter side of Hanukkah and how we celebrate it in the modern world, where a child who identifies as Jewish might—for any number of reasons—find himself seated on Santa’s lap. Of course, Hanukkah is a celebration, a moment of renewal and rededication, a remembrance of survival and perseverance. But it’s also a time of candles and gifts, big words (Antiochus, anyone?), multiple spellings (H or Ch? One k or two?) and sizzling treats, all taking place against the backdrop of, um, another holiday that some people celebrate in December. It’s fertile ground for kids to make funny mix-ups and sweetly wise comments!
When my son, Ben, was 3, he took a preschool enrichment class at our synagogue. On the car ride home one day around Hanukkah time, I asked him what he had learned. “Judah Maccabee was a strong man!” he said, excitedly. “Oh? What did he do?” I asked. “He made all those pigs get out of the Temple!” was Ben’s dramatic reply. At first I was a little alarmed (and a little bemused) that he had been taught to refer to the Syrian-Greens who ransacked the Temple as “pigs.” But a brief conversation with his teacher revealed that the storybook they had read literally depicted pigs being brought into the holy Temple before being cleared out by the Maccabees!
Amy’s son Seth, who is now 14, experienced a big change when he went from Jewish preschool to public kindergarten nearly 10 years ago. She recalls that Seth’s teacher mentioned Hanukkah in class, and one child asked, “What’s Hanukkah?” The teacher explained that Hanukkah is a holiday that Jewish people celebrate, while Christmas is a holiday celebrated by Christian people. Seth eagerly raised his hand and said, “Ooh! I have something to tell the class! I know someone who is Christian! His name is John and my aunt is marrying him!”
When Gus was 2, he loved saying the blessings and lighting the Hanukkah candles so much that he asked if he could eat his dinner where he could see the candles. “Of course,” said his mom, Jill, imagining shifting his high chair to the other side of the dinner table so he could watch the menorah sparkle on the counter across the room. Excited, Gus instead ran over to the table and pushed his high chair right up to the kitchen counter, which is where he ate his dinner that night!
Laura remembers that her non-Jewish boss came into work one day reporting that her son came home from kindergarten asking if their family could celebrate Hanukkah “like all the gibberish people do!”
Abbé, a beloved teacher at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, looks forward to the annual tradition of making up new verses to the famous song “I Have a Little Dreidel” with her classes. A perennial favorite goes: “I have a little dreidel; I made it out of snow. I put it in the oven; where did my dreidel go?” New versions come up every year, like, “I have a little dreidel; I made it out of a straw. At 50 miles an hour, it broke the speeding law!” and “I have a little dreidel; I made it out of bread. And when I tried to spin it, I ate it up instead!”
“Can you please give me presents for Christmas this year?” Ben, who is about to turn 5, asked me last week. “No,” I replied, reminding him, “We celebrate Hanukkah at our house. Jewish children get presents at Hanukkah, and Christian children get presents at Christmas.” Ben thought about it for a moment, then looked at me and said, seriously, “Mommy, you don’t get to make the rules of Hanukkah and Christmas!”
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