• Thu, Dec 19 - 11:00 am ET

How To Explain Christmas To Your Jewish Children (in GIFs)

christmas-for-jews

Starting the day after Thanksgiving, you can’t walk outside without being inundated with Christmas cheer at every turn. If you’re not a Christmas celebrator, you might be kind of confused/annoyed by it all, and not really understand what’s going on. And if you’re toting kids around with you, how do you explain all of this to their questioning little faces?

I don’t have children of my own, but I have a good deal of experience explaining Christmas to Jewish kids. Here’s the thing about my very Abrahamic-sounding last name–it’s actually pretty misleading. My mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, and since I was neither baptized nor did I inherit Judaism from my mother (Judaism is matrilineal, although the Reform movement recognizes patrilineal descent), I’m technically neither. I’m just a big atheist with a lot of inherited guilt coming at me from both sides.

I grew up in West Los Angeles in an overwhelmingly Jewish environment. I was the only halfsie in my elementary school class, alongside maybe 10 other gentiles. I was never busier than the weekends of seventh grade, when I went to a bat or bar mitzvah every weekend. In a reversal of Joanna’s experience, we sang Chanukah songs at our winter concerts, with one or two Christmas songs thrown in for political correctness. Actually, at my overwhelmingly white school, we mostly sang songs about Kwanzaa, which I suppose was well-intentioned but missed the mark. Kids seemed to understand the cultural element of Christmas, but mostly ribbed me about selfishly accepting presents on both Chanukah and Christmas. They didn’t really get what was going on or any of the traditions, and thought of Christmas with suspicion.

You don’t celebrate Christmas? Cool. Here’s how you can explain the cultural clusterfuck that is Jesus’ birthday party to your children, who probably just want to know why they don’t get extra presents.

Okay, so this Santa Thing.

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It was funny to grow up with precocious kids who knew Santa didn’t exist at age 4, and would regularly say things to me like “you know Santa doesn’t exist, right?” Yes, I know Santa doesn’t exist. I always knew. I had a lot of success describing Santa as “just a dude in a costume,” but you can tell your kids that Santa Claus is a big lie parents tell their children to make them behave.

It’s a birthday party for Jesus.

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So children are full of questions. You know that adorable phase where they just ask “why?” over and over and you just want to ship them off to an orphanage? This can be pretty difficult once they find out that Christmas is a birthday party for Jesus. First of all, who is Jesus? Yikes, that’s a tough one. Second of all, there’s no cake. You should teach your children to sympathize with the silly people who have to celebrate a birthday without birthday cake. Christmas is really amazing but there really should be birthday cake.

It’s either religious or it isn’t.

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Some people go to church on Christmas because it’s a religious holiday, or some secular/interfaith households just treat is as a day that’s about family and not Jesus. So how do you explain this nuance to children, who might wonder why they can’t have a secular Christmas? I would tell them to shut the hell up since you know they’re only after more presents. (Quick note: The Simpsons is really coming through for me, GIF-wise).

Sometimes, adults hate their families.

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The conversation about Christmas is a wonderful time to explain to children that some people hate their families. The whole “drinking through the holidays” joke is so pervasive that I’m surprised Yo Gabba Gabba hasn’t had Questlove make a guest appearance singing a song called “I’ll Be Doing Shots In The Bathroom For Christmas.” Kids pick up on everything, so by now they’re wise to the fact that adults don’t love getting trapped in the same room as their siblings and the monsters their siblings married. This is a worthwhile conversation about family, communication, and day-drinking.

So what’s the appeal? Why is Christmas everywhere?

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Undeniably, Christmas permeates all aspects of culture. There’s a whole genre of music and movie, slutty costumes galore, and a whole cultural narrative tied up in love, honesty, gift giving, and proposing on Christmas. Jewish people might not get what all the fuss is about, and I don’t blame them. Well, here’s the appeal: nostalgia.

Every year, we’re told that we have this wonderful time where we can be with our families, be loving and caring, eat baked goods, give gifts, and appreciate what we have all the while tipsy enough to not be bothered by passive aggression. Like the hormones released after birth, something kicks in on the day after Christmas to make us forget how much our families suck and how our Christmases bear no resemblance to the idyllic ones we’re told we can have, and so we keep coming back next year. The appeal of Christmas is that every year we try to chase something we can’t get, and to create the family situation we wished we had. Listen up, Jewish children. For Christmas celebrating peoples, Christmas is a chance to get it right, and even though we inevitably fail, we keep trying.

Photo: Shutterstock

You can reach this post's author, Julia Sonenshein, on twitter.
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  • Bethany Ramos

    Happy birthday, Jesus, I always say. And then I picture him dancing like that up in heaven. (I also picture the end scene of This Is The End w/ Backstreet Boys too hahaha.)

  • Alexandra

    Essentially Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe to be the savior, versus a savior yet to come.
    Everything else is just Hallmark. :)

    • Iwill Findu

      Which we celebrate in the winter rather then the spring because if didn’t have a good reason to get drunk in the winter we might just all go hang ourselves. Winter is just so darn depressing.

    • Bunny Lucia

      I have so many Agnostic and Athiest friends that instead of “Christmas Gifts” or “Hanukkah gifts” they’re just “Winter sucks and here’s a present” presents.

  • LiteBrite

    We live in an area with a high Jewish population, so my son gets exposure to Chanukah and other Jewish holidays. The week before T-giving we were driving somewhere and I mentioned T-giving was coming.

    The Boy: “Yeah. And Monica starts too!”
    Me: “Who’s Monica?”

    It took me a few minutes to figure out he was totally mispronouncing “Chanukah.” I can’t wait until all the questions about Jewish holidays start. Dude, I barely know about Christianity. Religion is not my area of expertise.

    Btw, love the Simpsons gifs. You can always quote Bart Simpson when explaining what Christmas is, “Christmas is the time when all religions come together to celebrate Jesus Christ!” :)

    • G.E. Phillips

      Face asked me last night if we were gonna have Chanukah. I decided to be straightforward and tell him that people who are Jewish celebrate Chanukah. He asked me, hopefully, if he was Jewish. I told him no; he asked me what he was then and since it was almost bedtime and I was fucking exhausted, all I could think to say was, “You’re Irish.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Well, can we have Irish Chanukah?”

    • AP

      Potato latkes and Guinness?

    • G.E. Phillips

      I’m sensing a recipe coming on… “Guinness-battered potato latkes.” Annnnd Irish Chanukah has officially become a holiday in the Phillips household.

    • Blooming_Babies

      Count me in!

    • LiteBrite

      The boy asked me if we were Jewish. I said we weren’t. He then asked me if I was sure. Son, your name is Christian. That should be your first clue that we’re not Jewish.

    • Janok Place

      Well… in the boy’s defense…. Christ was Jewish after all ;)

    • LiteBrite

      No, Christ was Christian. And white. Don’t you watch Fox News? :)

    • Janok Place

      OMG! That makes so much sense! That’s probably why I kept getting kicked out of Sunday school. All those false claims I made as a child… duh!

    • Bunny Lucia

      Send the little one over to Auntie Emmali’s. I can teach him about paganism, Judaism, Christianity, Shamanism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism… Unfortunately I don’t know Confucianism very well, though

    • ElleJai

      You can teach mine if you’d like, I’ve forgotten everything I knew pre-baby (which could explain why parents seem so stupid. Birth induced amnesia!)

    • LiteBrite

      You’re hired. You can teach me too, while you’re at it. )

  • Jessie

    Try being Pagan this time of year. It’s… special, to put it nicely. Trying to celebrate the holiday of my faith in the manner we do, while trying to live and let others live in whatever way they celebrate this time of year, and yet at the same time occasionally seething quietly upon seeing sacred aspects of Yule being appropriated into Hallmark baloney or just straight up stolen into other faiths and claimed as their own while condemning those they adopted it from… Yeah, this time of year can get a little ugly for me, being the only Pagan in my family. I try not to let it get me down, but it’s hard once in a while. =

    • Ali

      Isn’t it crazy that the Christians completely took over all of the pagan traditions of Yule and Winter Solstice to make them about little baby Jesus, who actually (according to the bible) wasn’t even born in December, if you believe that sort of thing.
      Christmas trees, gifts, holly, mistletoe, carols, candles… Even dear old Kris Kringle. All pagan. I guess “Birth of the Sun” was enough of a correlation for Christians to completely wipe out traditions of your religion. I feel for you sister.

    • EX

      I agree with all of that except the name Kris Kringle. The name comes from Christkind or Christkindl, the traditional gift bringer of christmas in the Austrian and German traditions (and some other countries). It means “Christ Child” and is a representation of the baby Jesus, depicted as a type of angel. (Don’t ask me why the baby Jesus has to bring presents to his own birthday party). Somehow the name Christkindl became Kris Kringle and the name merged in America with the idea of Santa Claus (which of course came from St. Nicholas and Odin, so yes, Pagan). But, yes, very little to none of what we celebrate at christmas really has to do with the birth of Christ.

    • Alicia Kiner

      My husband and I were talking about this yesterday. He doesn’t consider himself anything when it comes to religion or faith, but he gets really irritated when he sees the “Keep Christ in Christmas” or “Jesus is the reason for the season” things. He’s like, people should KNOW better by now. If they are truly Christian, they should KNOW that Jesus was born in the spring. And Christmas was just arrogant Catholics taking over the world and trying to get other religions to conform to what they wanted. He’s not wrong.

    • Kay_Sue

      The fact that they don’t gives me immeasurable pleasure while Christmas shopping because we play the game “Wish People Happy Holidays and See How Many Self-Righteous Assholes Flip Out”.

      It’s fun. Not nice, I know, but fun.

    • Alicia Kiner

      And see Happy Holidays should NOT be offensive. When I was growing up, you would hear Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s, so saying Happy Holidays was a way to say it faster. It’s just in the last several years that it became politically correct. Besides, if someone says “Have a nice day” to you, that’s not cause to get offended. What’s the difference? Celebrate however you choose or not at all, but have a good one regardless ;)

    • Kay_Sue

      I know. It’s mind-boggling that it is so offensive.

    • Janok Place

      Maybe they are mad that you’ve only chosen to tell them (once) to “Have a nice day!”… Maybe they expect you get in touch and say “Good morning!”… then “Good Afternoon!” and finally, when all is said and done, “Good Evening!”. Seriously. Thank you, stranger, for taking time out of your day to wish me well. Happy travels!

  • http://twitter.com/mariaguido Maria Guido

    Shots in the bathroom? Why didn’t I ever think of that?

  • Jessica

    “Christmas is a chance to get it right, and even though we inevitably fail, we keep trying.” I want that monogrammed on the blanket that I will use to warm myself as I take shots in the bathroom.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      Could we make custom flasks?

    • Jessica

      Now there’s a stocking stuffer!

  • silly_world

    Ok so I grew up in an area where everyone is Christian pretty much. I know nothing about Hanukkah. I’m not even sure I spelt it right. I don’t know why you keep saying Chanukah. WHAT ARE THESE THINGS? Someone help me I’m so confused. Seriously I know you light candles and have a driedel. But why? Someone help.

    • Sundaydrive00

      Google is your friend.

    • AP

      The different spellings of Hanukkah just has to do with how it’s transliterated from Hebrew, which does not use the Roman alphabet. Just like there are different editions of the Bible or The Illiad, different scholars translate the spelling of Hanukkah differently. It all means the same thing.

  • Kay_Sue

    “So children are full of questions. You know that adorable phase where they just ask “why?” over and over and you just want to ship them off to an orphanage? ”

    This. This so hard with my three year old right now. I hate spiders, but I currently have a whole new appreciation for why they eat their young.

  • Name

    “Christmas is really amazing but there really should be birthday cake.”

    Before my grandmother died, we DID have a birthday cake for Jesus every year! With icing that spelled out “Happy Birthday Jesus” and everything. It was very festive. Of course, now the family celebrates Christmas as a secular holiday, so no more cakes for us. :(

    • Julia Sonenshein

      Okay you all were doing it RIGHT!

    • Blooming_Babies

      My kids totally ate cake at their Jesus birthday party today at preschool. Good times.

  • Alicia Kiner

    Love the lighthouse gif. Very pretty

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