December & Diversity

We are in the midst of December and holiday time is upon us. I love the twinkling lights, the scent of pine and cinnamon in the air, the sound of joyous caroling. Kind of odd for a nice Jewish girl, no? It’s true—I do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but I love Christmas time.

I know that sounds strange, but I don’t think it is, really. I mean, what’s not to like? Sparkly decorations, beautiful music, yummy treats to enjoy… It is the most wonderful time of the year, after all. I especially enjoy this time of year when Chanukkah and Christmas actually overlap, so I feel that my holiday is part of the holiday season. That being said, you may not know that Chanukkah is a pretty minor Jewish holiday. It is not even remotely equivalent to Christmas in religious importance, but it has been elevated in “status” because it usually falls in December.

Growing up in the D.C. suburbs, my classmates were a mix of religions, races, and ethnicities. I grew up with kids from lots of different backgrounds, some of them like mine and many different from my own. Being Jewish was not unique within my school. About half of my classmates also celebrated Chanukkah. This was not abnormal. My Christian friends came over for latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and invited me over to help decorate their Christmas trees. I never felt different or excluded.

Now that I am a mother, the holiday season feels full of landmines. Explaining to my boys why we don’t have a tree, or who Santa is, or why we are not getting any more presents (thanks a lot, Thanksgivukkah), feels difficult and often frustrating. As we turn the corner into our subdivision, the boys yell, “Christmas lights!!!” and oooh and ahhh over the decorated houses. Although I love the lights, too, I feel the urge to tell them over and over, “Yes, they are beautiful, but we don’t celebrate Christmas, we celebrate Chanukkah.” This statement is often met with whining and questions: “Whyyyy??? Why don’t we get Christmas presents???” Yes, it all comes down to the presents when you are four and five years old. Of course, for Christians, Christmas means much more than lights and trees and Santa Claus.

These conversations over the past few weeks have made me think carefully about our students. I grew up in a school with many other children who were just like me, and because it was public school, there was no holiday party or Christmas activities in the classroom. I feel for our students who are in some way different from the majority and may be the only diverse student in the room. This year I have only one student who does not celebrate Christmas. Does she feel left out of the snack time conversations about Christmas trees and presents? Should I single her out to share her own family’s traditions? Will this make her feel more included or just highlight that she is different from her peers? Is it easier for her to share because she knows that I am Jewish, too? I don’t know the answers; I think they are different for every child.

My own children brought menorahs, books about Chanukkah, and chocolate gelt (coins) to their respective classrooms this year to share with their peers. While my younger son was incredibly excited about this opportunity, my older son was less than thrilled. He was not interested in talking to his class about Chanukkah. While this did not surprise me given his more reticent personality, I was grateful that his teacher valued diversity and our family enough to share the items herself and teach the class a little bit about our holiday, although it is not her own.

During the holiday season are we, as teachers, aware and sensitive that we do have religious diversity, even here at Trinity School? Do we engage in fun activities that revolve around Christmas trees and Santa Claus, or do we keep things “winter-themed” with snowflakes and snowmen? Do we expose children to other holidays, such as Chanukkah and Kwanzaa? What if all of the children are Christian? Does that mean it’s okay to stick to Christmas and “skip” the other holidays, or do we need to expose the children to other cultures and traditions? I’m pretty sure I’ve done this is the past when I haven’t had any Jewish students, feeling relieved that no one will feel left out.

I wonder how teachers can make all students feel comfortable, included, and still honor their differences. Diversity is a topic we are all thinking about and talking about this year, but it is topic that we are often afraid to discuss for fear of saying something that offends someone. Just in writing this post, I asked five different people to proofread it and give me feedback, because I was so worried about saying the wrong thing or being offensive in some unintended way. Honest and open conversations are vital to having a school culture that values each other’s differences.

Again, I don’t have the answers to these questions; rather, I raise them to spark a conversation. I value your thoughts and feedback, Trinity family. I hope in the comments you will share how you handle this time of year in your classroom, especially in light of our recent conversations about diversity and culture competency.

Over winter break, I look forward to spending time with my family. Just as during your Christmas celebrations, there will be love, good food, and music to share. And, of course, what all Jews do on Christmas (maybe you don’t know this tidbit!): Chinese food and a movie!

Whatever winter holiday you celebrate, whatever your tradition, I wish you a happy, relaxing, peaceful, and joyous celebration.

Samantha Steinberg serves Trinity School as a Second Grade teacher. She celebrates Chanukkah, but can often be found ooohing and ahhhing over her neighbor’s Christmas lights or heard singing Christmas songs in her car.  

7 thoughts on “December & Diversity

  1. I love the diverse celebrations, also. I think young children can oh and ah over the candles and gelt or lights and candy canes. I think the problem with the “presents” is one of the ills of our commercialize society. It’s tough to teach sharing and giving when all around dance inticing advertizing. But for a glance at a glimmer of the spirit of any holiday season, read “what is Christmas?” on the 3’s bulletin board. there are many thoughts of giving and sharing!

  2. Samantha,
    I so appreciate your reflections here, and it is important for all teachers to be cognizant of the richness of diversity within classrooms. Many (schools and teachers) would stay away from it and just say– we don’t do any of it so as not to offend. But not offering children the opportunity to be exposed to, to learn, and to appreciate their friends’ many different backgrounds is bigger to me.
    When I moved to Florida, I enrolled my youngest in a Jewish preschool for a few reasons. First, they were one of a very few that were of high quality (and had space for infants!). Second, they were very close to my school. Third, I was interested and excited to be the family who wasn’t the primary religion of the class. Dustin learned so much about Judaism, celebrated Shabbat every week, and was exposed to something different than what he had at home. It was a great learning experience for our family as well.
    Keep reflecting and ensuring that you are always placing the children, their experiences, and their feelings at the forefront– the sign of a great teacher!

  3. Great, thought provoking post! I was always the only Jewish kid in my class. When I was younger, I loved sharing information about Hanukkah and other holidays. As I grew older, I was embarrassed by being the only Jewish child. It made me feel different from my peers. I agree with you, it really depends on the child.

  4. Beryll, thanks so much for commenting. I will definitely check out the 3’s bulletin board. It’s amazing how quickly kids forget about the giving and sharing and move to I want, I want, I want in our material world. We are struggling with this is our house. I agree so much with your thoughts about presents and commercialism. These aspects take away from the more important messages and reason for the holidays.

  5. Wow, Angel! Thanks so much for your comment! What an amazing experience for Dustin and your family, and a brave one, too, I think. Over Thanksgiving, I attended my niece’s birthday celebration at her Jewish preschool. There were a few kids who were obviously diverse, and I wondered why someone would send their child to a Jewish school if they weren’t Jewish. Your reasons make perfect sense. I suspect these families were also looking for a quality preschool with available space and a convenient location. The decision to have your majority child become the minority is the part I find so brave and interesting. This is an experience he may not have again in his life, but I’m sure he will be a more open, respectful person because of it. It is obviously so much easier (and more comfortable) to stick with what you know and go with the majority, but not exposing kids to diverse cultures and ideas is really a disservice. We could get our families together for a Shabbat/Christmas sing-a-long! My kids can’t stop singing Jingle Bells this week. 🙂

  6. Thanks for your comment, Stacey. My husband had this experience as well growing up in No Va, 30 minutes away from where I grew up. He hated Hebrew School and hated being different from his friends. It really turned him away from religion. Making kids feel comfortable when they are the “only one” is hard, because some kids really want to share and others don’t want to or they feel embarrassed. I feel like our team is in a unique position to let our kids know that we are different, too, and that’s okay. 🙂

  7. I really appreciate this post, Samantha. Taking others’ traditions, beliefs, and practices into consideration is always necessary or we take away a child’s identity.

    Interestingly, I grew up in upstate NY and attended a private school. We were never able to sing Christmas carols (only Jingle Bells type songs) but sang lots of Hanukkah songs. I can recall wondering about this. I wish that I had been taught to better understand the reason for the menorah and the songs we sang. I wished we could sing Away in a Manger, too. But it wasn’t allowed.

    There is always room to understand another’s perspective. Always room to appreciate culture and traditions beyond our walls.

    I appreciate you opening this dialogue.

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