For young un-Orthodox (in terms of denomination, not podcast-fandom) folk, Christmas can be a bummer. As a wee Jewess I was superenvious of the kids who got to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall; I felt left out when Christmas music filled every public space; I wanted to see blue and white sparkly lights mixed with the red and green ones.
We can’t help what we feel. Today, rather than wishing for more public acknowledgment of Hanukkah, I’d prefer less public celebration of Christmas—what with us purportedly living in a secular democracy and having this whole separation-of-church-and-state business and all. But it’s hard to explain that to a kid who feels like South Park’s Kyle Broflovski: “I’m a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas.”
Here are some terrific books that will help kids of all ages feel a little less lonely.
Dear Santa, Love Rachel Rosenstein by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer, with illustrations by Christine Davenier. Rachel Rosenstein is Jewish (duh), and Christmas makes her feel “like a kid in a candy store without a mouth.” She keeps writing to Santa, begging him to come to her house. “I know that you are a fair person and will not mind that I am Jewish,” she says in one note. “After all, so was Jesus, at least on his mother’s side.” Her parents make it very clear that Santa is not gonna show up. Instead, the family goes out for Chinese food … where Rachel sees some of her Muslim, Chinese, and Hindu classmates. It’s comforting, but not as great as a visit from Santa would be. As you might imagine, some parents and librarians were pissy that the book doesn’t end with Rachel realizing that Hanukkah is as awesome as Christmas. You know what? Hanukkah is not as awesome as Christmas! Which is as it should be! Christians are celebrating the birth of their LORD; we are celebrating a minor military victory. Parents: Teach your kids about false equivalencies. Teach them that life can disappoint; acknowledge that sometimes you just have to sit with your discomfort. (Ages 4-8)
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown. This snazzy little book is really funny and superdelightful to read aloud if you are into screaming. Which I am. The high-decibel latke, fleeing a bath in boiling oil, becomes increasingly frustrated as it tries to explain Hanukkah to a string of colored lights, a candy cane, and a pine tree. The tree begins to tell a pointedly funny origin story about wintertime pagan rituals—did you know they predate both Christmas and Hanukkah—before being interrupted by a surprise ending that helps the latke feel truly seen. The book is out of print (HOW?? The cheapest used copy I could find was $31, indicating that there is still a market!) but your library will probably have a copy of the book because libraries love some Lemony Snicket. (Ages 4-adult)
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. There’s no Christmas in this old-fashioned folktale of a book, but it is so freaking scary your kid will forget all about Santa. (Lots of kids love scary books. The librarian in my children’s elementary school made up little stickers that say “scary” to put on the spines of scary books so kids can either show off the spine boastfully or steer clear.) And Hershel is funny and smart as well as scary. Everyone should have a copy, as it is the greatest Hanukkah book ever written. No lie. (Ages 4-8)
An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco. This is a lovely if wordy tale that casts a gimlet eye on Christmas materialism. Back in the day, an ORANGE was a thrilling Christmas present. Stuff that in your stocking. (Oh fine, the book also touts selflessness and generosity, which are good traits in a cold world.) (Ages 5-9).
My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories, edited by Stephanie Perkins. This tasty treasury of young-adult authors features Holly Black, Ally Carter, Matt de La Peña, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire, Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Laini Taylor, and Kiersten White. Yay, mini-candy-cane-size love stories by rock star writers! Some are stronger on character, others on plot, others on setting. You get geographic diversity, swooniness, characters of color, the teensiest smidgen of horror, gay boys, magical realism, Hanukkah and Christmas and Kwanzaa, fantasy. In a starred review, the usually cranky Kirkus wrote, “Rich language and careful, efficient character development make the collection an absorbing and sophisticated read, each story surprisingly fresh despite the constraints of a shared theme. It’s that rarest of short-story collections: There’s not a single lump of coal.” (Ages 12+)
There you go. And for God’s sake, do not get the child in your life Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.