Growing up, the holiday season awkwardly revolved around Christianity. My siblings and I were some of the only Jewish kids in our school, while the majority of my fellow students celebrated Christmas.
During the holiday season, there were Christmas concerts, photos with Santa Claus, Christmas-themed activities and movies in class. It made sense that my classes emphasized having holiday spirit, but it always bothered me that I never really had a voice to share my own holiday celebrations.
While I enjoyed learning about my fellow students’ traditions, where were the lessons about my heritage? Sure, in high school there was a history lesson or two about the religious crusades in Israel or the Torah, but where was our lesson about Hanukkah or Passover?
Even though I’m not a very religious person, I’ve always felt like the token Jewish student. If my teacher wanted to have a lesson about Jewish holidays, it was my responsibility to bring in matzah, dreidels, yamakas or a menorah and give the class a lecture about my traditions.
I distinctively remember one year in elementary school when my teacher allowed me to bring in a dreidel and chocolate coins for all my classmates during our Christmas party. I exuberantly picked out some colorful spinning tops with my parents and couldn’t wait to share them with my classmates.
But when I got to school, after listening to scores of Christmas music and watching a slew of movies, my teacher gave me half an hour to “teach my class how to gamble.” I’m sure he meant it in good humor, but the underlying meaning has stuck with me ever since.
The problem is evident: if our nation’s educators aren’t knowledgeable about their students’ cultural backgrounds, how can they possibly offer a welcoming environment for each and every student to express themselves?
I can understand why there is such an emphasis placed on Christian holidays.
As of 2016, there are 7,160,000 Jews in America, according to the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Roughly 291 million people, or 92 percent, in the U.S. celebrate Christmas according to a 2013 Pew Research Center Survey.
Since most Americans celebrate Christmas, I understand the excitement and anticipation during the weeks leading up to the holiday. But that doesn’t mean we can completely forget about other students that may have different traditions, even if they’re scarcer than their other classmates.
Schools have begun to be more inclusive to students celebrating different holidays.
Similar to the change of “Easter” vacation to “spring” vacation, at some point, my school district changed from “Christmas” to “holiday” vacation. Our school’s Christmas concert also changed its name to be more inclusive to students who practice other religions soon after.
But that’s not good enough.
As student populations are becoming more diverse, schools need to take it upon themselves to educate our nation’s youth about every holiday, not just Christmas.
I can’t tell you the number of times that friends have asked me “So what do you do during Hanukkah?” Everyone knows a general synopsis of the holiday: we give presents over eight days instead of one morning. But what about the rest?
People are generally clueless about what happens during a typical night of Hanukkah. Every year I can expect to be asked the following; “Are there special Hanukkah foods? What time do you celebrate every night? What’s the story behind Hanukkah? What’s that special candle holder called?”
And the list goes on and on and on.
Christmas has it all: a feast with turkey, ham or goose; its own category of cookies, eggnog and all sorts of culturally normalized festivities that have become an integral part of American culture.
Hanukkah has its celebrations too, and they’re not that different from those of its Christian counterpart. But the responsibility shouldn’t be placed on students to educate others about their religion.
Simply taking one day out of the year to showcase different cultures and religions around the world can give students a glimpse into the lives of students celebrating a minority religion.
Some schools have taken steps to incorporate events like these into their classes. I worked as a counselor for the YMCA at a local high school for three years. During the holiday season, some of my students were overjoyed when they had a day learning about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Muslim celebrations. Locals from the Jewish, Muslim and African American community came in to give a fun, interactive lesson about how they celebrate their holidays.
This is a great start and hopefully more schools can look at this model and find a way to incorporate it.
I take pride in my heritage. Nobody has to be an expert on other religions, but during this time of year, I’ve always felt left out of the normal holiday festivities. Being educated can brighten someone’s day and make them feel included during the most wonderful time of the year.
Max Kalnitz is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org