Christmas carols wafting through the shopping malls. Tinsel-hung store windows a fantasy of toys. Twinkling Christmas trees and jolly Santas listening to the wishes of good little girls and boys.
The joys of Christmas?
Not for Jewish parents, who must cope each year with the Christmas dilemma: how to guide their children to be faithful to their own religious tradition in a culture saturated with the most attractive aspects of another faith.
"Around Christmas, many Jews feel ambivalent about being Jewish," said Lori Goodman of the Jewish Social Service Agency, "Christmas is magical, it's enchantment. Hanukah is a historical event. There's no enchantment."
Hanukah, which begins tonight, commemorates the faithfulness of ancient Jews in defeating the armies of a Syrian king who sought to turn the Jews away from their God.
When the Jews returned after the battle to clean and rededicate the temple in Jerusalem, they found only one day's supply of oil remaining for the eternal light, but miraculously it burned for eight days. The event is marked in Jewish homes by lighting candles each night for the eight days of Hanukah.
In the Jewish calendar, Hanukah is a relatively minor event, but because it occurs during the Christmas season, some Jewish parents try to graft onto it some of the excitement of Christmas -- especially the gifts and festivities.
Goodman, who on Wednesday led a lunch-hour discussion on theChristmas-Hanukah dilemma at the new downtown office of the Jewish Social Service Agency at 2028 P St. NW, counseled against "trying to jazz up Hanukah so it will be more like Christmas."
For Jewish parents to celebrate both holidays "ultimately fosters. . . just a blank slate" rather than a clear signal to children of the family's religious identity, she said.
She counseled instead that difficult though it may be, Jewish parents should explain to their children that the excitement of Christmas they see all around them belongs to another religion and is not part of their heritage.
"It's very difficult for parents to say 'no' to children. It's very difficult for parents to see their children as outsiders looking in . . . to tell them, 'No, that's not for you . . . you have to be an outsider,' she said.
But, she continued, "It's part of growing up to learn to be different, to learn to deal with losses."
What is most important, she said, is that Jewish parents be "very, very clear about their own tradition;" that they "try not to gloss over the loss" to their children of the Christmas fun and excitement of their friends; "that you say, 'Yes, that would be fun, but it's not our tradition.' "
Jewish families should "try to enrich" such Jewish holidays as Passover and Sukkot, to give children a sense of something special within their tradition, she said.
But the no-Christmas policy in the homes of Jewish children "doesn't mean that you can't go to someone's house" for a celebration, at the invitation of a Christian friend or classmate. "Just remember that it's not your birthday," she advised.
"Children would like their parents to be clear: 'There are celebrations at school, or at a Christmas party . . . but we don't celebrate [Christmas] at home.' "
"It's a very thin line, it's very, very difficult," she admitted, but in the long run it pays off. "I think children who grow up with Hanukah" celebrated as a strictly Jewish observance "are much clearer about their own identities than Jews who celebrated both Hanukah and Christmas."
"But what about Santa Claus?" protested Naomi Verdugo. The young mother explained that she wanted to be "more observant than my parents. I want to observe Hanukah, but I don't want my son to miss Santa."
It's a "question of priorities," Goodman replied. "It's a question of which is more important: to foster Jewish education or to give him a little bit of magic."
"But do you tell him there's no Santa Claus?" Verdugo persisted. "Then he'd tell his [Christian] friends. I don't want him to ruin it for his friends."
Verdugo acknowledged a little sheepishly that the issue is not immediately pressing in her home because her son "is only 6 months old," but she explained that she likes to plan ahead.
"What about when a Christian child says 'Merry Christmas'? asked Marilyn Schachter. "If the Jewish child says 'I'm Jewish, my holiday is Hanukah,' sometimes the Christian child is embarrassed."
Goodman replied that there is no single "right" answer.
In the long run, Goodman said, the Christmas-Hanukah dilemma is harder for parents than children. "It can be difficult to be Jewish," she said, especially at Christmas when "everything is going on around you . . . . But kids don't feel deprived if their values are clear."