Christmas used to really bother Jenny Greenwald. It got to the point where she was going to explode if she heard one more jingle bell or saw one more person dressed in red and green.
"I felt funny, I just didn't enjoy Christmastime. I ran away, I cried," said Jenny, who is 8 and lives in Potomac.
The reason? She is Jewish and there weren't many other Jewish kids in her class. Also, there is a big tradition at her private school of putting on a Christmas pageant, with angels and hymns. "I felt really left out," she said.
It can be a problem not only for Jewish kids, but for those who are Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu -- anyone whose families do not, for whatever reason, celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is everywhere in this country, especially for kids. Santa's helpers are at the shopping mall. Nativity scenes are on people's front lawns. There's even a Christmas tree in the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Turn on the television, and there's Linus telling the story of Jesus's birth on "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
Jenny doesn't mind people celebrating other holidays, she said, but she does find it a little weird to be a Jewish kid playing the part of an angel in her school's nativity pageant. She was in the show last year and it really bothered her.
"I didn't want to be in the pageant," she said. (She could have skipped it, her mother said, but sitting out during practices might have made her feel even more left out. So, she stayed in the show.)
Non-Christian kids, meanwhile, have some pretty important traditions of their own to observe in December, but their classmates often know little about them.
Sarah Ismail, for instance, fasts as part of the month-long Muslim holy time called Ramadan. When observing it, Muslims do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset.
Sarah, who is 9 and lives in McLean, gets up early along with the rest of the family so they can pray, eat and prepare for the day of fasting. She explained that she doesn't fast every day. She takes a break on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she has P.E. at school.
"I get so thirsty I have to drink something, so I'm going to break the fast anyway," she said.
On days when she does fast, she and a Muslim friend spend the lunch period at the library where they read or do homework.
"Some kids, especially when I first started going to the library, they said, 'What, you don't eat lunch?' " Sarah said.
"I just tell them it's part of my religion. They usually think it's pretty cool, after I explain it."
Like Jenny, Sarah doesn't mind other kids marking their religious holidays, but she can't help noticing how little they join in hers. At her school, they have a winter concert, she said, "but the songs are mostly Christmas carols and Hanukah songs."
If non-Muslim kids took the time to learn about their classmates' Ramadan traditions, they might realize they have some things in common.
On Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, "we get lots of presents," said Zak Thomas, a 12-year-old from McLean. "I'm hoping to get some PlayStation 2 games, like the Tony Hawk Pro Skater one."
Still, for non-Christian kids, it can be hard to deal with Christmas. And the toughest place to confront it, kids said, is inside your own head.
"When I was a little kid, I really envied Christmas. I thought Christmas trees were so nice," said Zak.
The trees have the same big appeal for Jenny. "They're so beautiful," she said. "I love the pretty lights and I love decorating them."
And then there's Santa. "I really wanted to believe in Santa," Zak remembered.
What helped, these kids said, was having a few more students of their religion at school. Now, Zak said, he realizes "I am what I am and I'm proud of it." And Sarah has discovered how good Ramadan feels: "I can smell the food better and appreciate the food more," she said.
Jenny also is feeling a bit better about the holidays. The Jewish parents and the teachers at her school have been working together to make sure there are plenty of Hanukah activities and decorations. They put on a Hanukah program and Jenny got to be a dancing latke this year.
And she has another consolation. On Christmas morning, her family goes to her aunt and uncle's home, where they celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas. There's a tree and Jenny gets candy, a stocking full of goodies and some presents. She doesn't believe in Santa, but doesn't say so in front of the kids there who do.
"I don't want to spoil it for them."
-- Fern Shen