What do you do if your family doesn’t celebrate Christmas? Are there strategies so kids don’t feel left out of all the Christmas fun? How do you explain about Santa Claus? Local experts weigh in with strategies. Every year, it seems to happen earlier and earlier — that moment when we walk into the drugstore, notice the displays of Christmas lights and candy canes, and think: But it’s not even Halloween! Soon after that, the jewelry and toy commercials start popping up on TV. Sugary cookies arrive at the office on communal plates. And radio stations swap out Elton John and Mariah Carey for non-stop jingling bells and caroling dogs. ‘Tis, unmistakably, the season.
Even families who celebrate Christmas can feel overwhelmed by the seasonal blitz, but when the end of your calendar year doesn’t feature a visit from eight tiny reindeer, December can be a particularly tough month. Non-Christian kids may feel left out or jealous of all the attention when their friends decorate Christmas trees, go caroling with neighbors, or head to the mall to recite their gift wish list to Santa. Parents then must grapple with the competing forces of faith and culture: What if my child wants a Christmas tree? Is it OK that she knows the words to “Silent Night”? How do I explain Santa Claus to him?
Many parents and religious leaders believe there isn’t one right answer to the toughest questions about Christmas. “Every situation is a little different,” says Rabbi Ari Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold. “Different families can interact with the season however works best with their family.” He doesn’t advocate any hard and fast rules when he talks to parents in his congregation about handling the holidays. “Usually I feel, if it’s the right decision for the family, it’s the right decision,” he says.
As a parent, Goldstein tries to lessen the impact of Christmas for his children as Dec. 25 approaches. For example, as the airwaves get more crowded with the Grinch and Charlie Brown, “we might watch less TV around the house,” he says. “It’s not that we don’t want our kids to know about Christmas, or are trying to hide it from them. I’m not in the business of tearing down other cultures. I am looking to build better relationships with our own traditions and emphasize our own stories.”
Ruqaiya Asad, a Muslim and mother of three in Frederick, also believes in putting emphasis on her religion’s customs. Throughout the year, Asad adds a little extra fanfare to holiday celebrations in order to make them more special for her kids. For the Muslim holiday Eid, she puts together goody bags that her children take to school and give to classmates. “They get to share their holiday with other kids who might not know about it,” she says.
Navigating the Christmas season “is about building confidence in my kids and our beliefs,” Asad adds. From an early age, she has talked to her children — who are now 18, 13 and 7 — about the meanings of, and differences between, Muslim and Christian holidays. “They understand what it’s all about, and that they aren’t going to participate in Christmas, and so they don’t feel left out,” she says.
While honoring one’s culture is an important teaching moment, Goldstein, who has four children under age 9, also notes that it’s crucial for kids to see that the different religions and holidays aren’t in competition with each other. He finds that people do often equate Christmas with the Jewish holiday Hanukkah because they tend to occur around the same time each year. But “I try not to draw comparisons or connections between the two holidays,” he says. “I don’t see religion as a footrace.”
Kids will be naturally curious about what they see and hear around them, so finding a middle ground between faith and culture can be a good way for children to learn and to experience the season. Asad’s youngest loves glittery things, she says, so she’ll put up lights in December because her daughter enjoys them. Her older kids used to be interested in Halloween, which her family does not celebrate. “I figured a good compromise was to sit outside, give out candy and enjoy seeing what other people were wearing,” she says. “The kids had a lot of fun with that.”
If a child feels different because his or her family doesn’t participate in Christmas, spending time with others who also don’t participate can help bridge the cultural gap. CampQuest Florida, a week-long camp held Dec. 25 to Jan. 1 in Fort Lauderdale, is part of a network of summer camps for families who hold freethinking or secular humanist views. Director Elizabeth Spike, an athiest raised in a secular house, says the decision to hold the Florida camp around the holidays initially was more about taking advantage of the mild Florida winter, but that “if you wanted to get away from the Christmas culture, you could. It’s a nice alternative.”
The camp features traditional camp activities like canoeing and arts and crafts, as well as intellectual and scientific activities that cultivate critical thinking and secular values. Spike, whose elementary-aged children have attended CampQuest in Tennessee, says the camp is a place where “people come together who share common interests and beliefs,” she says. “The hope is that the kids at camp will make friends and realize there are other people out there with beliefs just like theirs.”
Within the family unit, traditions and customs serve to strengthen kids’ sense of continuity and commonality. Dr. Catherine Smithmyer, a child psychologist at Chesapeake Bay Psychological Services in Chester, says that the benefits children derive from family traditions are invaluable. “Whether it’s a long history of tradition, or making new ones, that sense of family memories is precious for kids to have,” she says. Since the Christmas season is imbued with a sense of tradition, December is a great time for families who don’t celebrate Christmas to find their own rituals that make the month unique and special to them.
Tradition, of course, isn’t only significant during the Christmas season. Family customs give Asad’s kids a greater appreciation of their own culture, even if it isn’t ubiquitous like Christmas can be. “My older children, especially, look forward to our holidays, now more than they ever did,” she says. Each year, the family celebrates the end of Ramadan, a holiday marked by a month of fasting, at a fancy restaurant that the kids get to choose. “They spend a long time thinking about where they want to go,” Asad says. “It’s a small thing, but it’s a big deal to them.”
By Ann Marie Watson
Explaining Santa Claus to Non-Christian Children
It’s inevitable that children in non-Christian households will hear of Santa Claus, and almost certain they will ask their parents about him. Being honest with children is important, but as Ruqaiya Asad discovered, you also have to be careful. “When my oldest was little, and she asked about Santa Claus, I told her the truth,” she says. “Then she went off and told the other kids in the neighborhood what I had said. I was a highly unpopular parent for that.”
Asad realized she had to teach her daughter, and her two subsequent children, that Santa is a fun story for other kids to enjoy, but also that it was important not to spoil the story for them. “You have to respect what other people are doing and celebrating,” she says she told her children.