Note: This post is dedicated to all of the moms, dads and students currently navigating what has become known in some circles as “The December Dilemma.” These are a few thoughts – shared in humility, not wisdom – as we navigate our own path this year.

Every year I forget. When announcements about the grade-level holiday program come home with instructions to dress in red and green; when the walk to school reveals a Christmas tree framed in the office window; when I find myself asking, why can’t they just stick with reading, writing and arithmetic and leave the holidays out of it? – I forget that this is in fact precisely the course in which we had decided it was important, as a family, to enroll: “How to Be a Proud Jew in a Predominantly Non-Jewish World.”

Every year I begin to point accusing fingers at teachers, administrators and room parents, and I forget that it’s not they, but we – my husband and I – who are the most important educators for our child at the moment. I don’t need his school to teach him about Hanukkah – his family and synagogue are doing a good job of that. I don’t particularly care if they teach him about Christmas – the holiday is omnipresent in America and he should understand what it’s about, simply as a form of cultural literacy. I defer to my husband to do the annual “Hanukkah Show-and-Tell.” I respect that it means a lot to the boy that he have a chance to share some of his holiday with his classmates, and so we make it happen – but, to be honest, it’s not my thing and I would just assume invite them over to our house for a Hanukkah party instead if I could wrap my head around the combination of sizzling oil and rambunctious first graders.

Rather, my lesson plans for the holiday season in public school look like this:

  • When he comes home from school, feeling frustrated and left out because his head is filled with Christmas songs that have no meaning for him: We ask him… What does it feel like to be “the other”? Who else might feel that way – not just during the winter holidays, but at other times throughout the year? What can we do to reach out to those individuals and help them feel included? This is our opening to teach the value of empathy.
  • When he becomes grumpy at the sight of a Christmas tree, not just in his school, but in all places: We take him to a friend’s house who has a beautiful Christmas tree adorned with ornaments collected over the years – each one the prompt for a story, a memory – and discover that what might be out of place for us can be tremendously meaningful for others in the proper context. This is our opening to teach the value of respect.
  • When he struggles to decide whether or not to participate in this year’s Holiday Program: We talk with him… About what is making him feel like he wants to and what is making him feel like he doesn’t. About what it would mean to him to choose to participate or not to. About how it doesn’t mean he is any less Jewish if he does sing Christmas songs or that he’s any less of a good classmate or friend if he doesn’t. And we support whatever he decides to do, whether it’s the same as last year’s decision or not. This is our opening to teach decision-making skills.

The coursework in “How to Be a Proud Jew in a Predominantly Non-Jewish World” is challenging, but the curriculum is so very important. And just like every meaningful class, every year the teachers learn from their students.