Many Jewish children have Christmas envy. It's easy to be seduced by the thought of a house covered in sparkling lights and a Christmas tree that you get to decorate with shiny ornaments and tinsel. Then you wake up in the morning after a jolly fat man in a red suit has flown around the world and delivered a pile of toys, placing them right under your beautiful tree. To many children, it sounds like heaven.
I’ll never forget going to visit my Aunt Phyllis in St. Louis one December when I was younger. I got off the plane and she said she had a surprise for me. It was the one thing every Jewish kid I knew craved—a Christmas tree. We made paper chains and decorated it and I was so happy.
When my son Josh was in third grade, many of his friends were Christian. It felt like the entire month of December that year was spent with them in debate about which was better—Chanukah or Christmas. Sure, Chanukah had eight nights of presents, but Christmas was everywhere you looked. They still believed in Santa back then and I remember Josh trying really hard to find proof that he didn’t exist, just to show that Christmas wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
In reality, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday. Its status has been elevated in America by its proximity to Christmas and the desire of the American Jews not to have their children feel left out this time of year.
That said, it is fun to have something to celebrate beside our Christian neighbors and we thought it would be a good idea if Josh shared that with his friends. We could have invited them over for Chanukah dinner, which would have been fun, but we took it one step further—we decided to combine it with football and started the Chanukah Bowl. Josh invited his Christian friends over on one of the nights of Chanukah. They played football and then came inside to light the candles, hear us say the blessings, eat some latkes and sufganiot (jelly donuts), learn the meaning of Chanukah, spin the dreidel and get presents. Josh was able to show off his holiday.
Through the years the tradition has stuck. It’s fun for my kids to share Chanukah and I’m thrilled each year to see Christian kids and Jewish kids gathered around our menorah, lighting the candles and enjoying our holiday. With so much focus in the news on religious fighting throughout the world, maybe the solution is to get them young, play a little football and give them some insight into how other people celebrate.