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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.