A lot like Christmas

"I'd rather get presents for Christmas," my friend's daughter told her, as she was on the verge of actually getting her first Chanukah present of the season.

Can you blame her?

Growing up, I remember Christmas as one of the loneliest times of the year. Everyone I knew, or at least it seemed like everyone, was celebrating, eating wonderful dinners, reveling in the warmth of family and getting great presents. In our family, it was "just another day," which was ridiculous because how can it be just another day when every store is closed, the weather guys on television are talking about the forecast for Santa and all your friends are comparing notes on what they got. Oh, yes, and some people did go to church.

More so than on any Jewish holiday, even the High Holy Days, Christmas was the day when I always felt most intensely different, most distinctly Jewish.

Which is probably why, as a mother, I don't give my children Christmas presents.

I know now, as I didn't then, that not all of those happy Christmas scenes at other people's houses are what they appear to be, that there are as many depressed fathers, angry mothers and unhappy children around those tables as there were in my house, and that Christmas trees don't make those feelings go away. I know now, as I didn't then, that holiday lights and Christmas carols don't automatically bring with them the sense of belonging, safety and security that is the movie version of this season. But sometimes, even now, it's hard to remember that from the outside looking in. Like my friend's daughter, there are days when I still pine for Christmas.

Some years ago, when I had a radio show, I had an orthodox rabbi as my guest.

His advice was simple: If you want your grandchildren to be Jewish, don't give Christmas gifts to your children. If you want your children to grow up with a sense of Jewish identity, don't turn Christmas into a semi-Jewish holiday. Many of my listeners were offended. What could be wrong with a little sectarian holiday spirit?

Chanukah is a nice holiday, but it's not a biggie. This year, my kids and I went out for latkes. My son had already gotten his big present for the year. My daughter didn't much like the sweatshirt I bought her. And both of them got new shoes they would have gotten anyway. That was it. It wasn't Christmas and it wasn't supposed to be.

I know a lot of people who are doing their best, married to men or women of a different faith, to raise their children to belong to both. I'm not sure how you can simultaneously believe that Jesus was the messiah and that he wasn't, or that Allah is and isn't God, but the only thing worse, it seems to me, is believing, as many kids today do, in "nothing." When I ask some of the kids I know what they "are" and they say "nothing," I'm always a little horrified. More than a little. They get Christmas presents, but they don't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. They just do the secular part. They get the presents, but not the gift.

The gift is knowing who you are. That is what I have tried, sometimes awkwardly and inartfully, to give to my children. It is what my parents, for all their failings, gave to me. The gift is faith in something larger. And it's not something you can find under a Christmas tree if all you're really looking for is a present.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web site at .

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