Children’s Book Author Finds Joy in Diverse Holiday Traditions
December 20, 2022
Experiencing the festivities of the holiday season as a child is a special kind of joy.
Whether your home is decorated with twinkling lights and a towering Christmas tree safeguarding your presents, or your tables are set with a menorah and a buffet of delicious Hanukkah treats like latkes and kugels, celebrating traditions and holidays that hold meaning to you and your loved ones is a beautiful experience. So, what happens when children are invited to celebrate our diverse religious traditions and holidays together?
It helps us be more compassionate and embrace one another, says Steven Steinfeld. In “Celebrate with Santa and Hanukkah Harry” and “Celebrate Four Holidays with Santa and Hanukkah Harry,” Steinfeld explores the joys of friendship, learning, and curiosity about each other’s life and values. In the first book, students at the Oak Park school combine the annual Christmas and Hanukkah parties so they can celebrate both traditions together, and they’re visited by Santa, Hanukkah Harry, and their wives, as special guests. In the second book, Ettie, a little girl who stutters, is planning the school’s annual Holiday Party and expanding it to include Kwanzaa and Diwali celebrations.
The books include watercolor illustrations by Maryna Salagub, a Ukrainian artist based in Canada. The profits from the book series are being donated to Ukraine to honor Salagub’s heritage and her brother who serves in the army.
In conversation with Interfaith America Magazine, Steinfeld shares what inspired him to write these books and why he thinks it’s important to talk about religious diversity with children.
Why do you think it’s important for children to learn and celebrate diverse religious holidays?
We have more in common than we have differences. There’s a lot to be gained by celebrating with other groups. You feel good when you celebrate your own holidays and other people’s holidays. And when you make friends with your schoolmates who have other religions and get involved in their holidays, you gain an understanding of the commonalities that you have with them.
I’ve traveled the world a lot, and I’ve realized that people are the same wherever you go. People everywhere want the same things, they want peace, they want security, they want their families to prosper. So, the idea that one [religious] group is better than the other is abhorrent and I think it stems from the fact that that people often don’t respect other religions.
What inspired you to write these books?
My wife was not only a kindergarten teacher but also a Hebrew school teacher for 15 years. So, part of writing this book was that she has an opportunity to share this kind of thing with her students. There’s actually even some resistance around a book like this, amongst people who are conservative in their religious views, who are like, “Don’t confuse children with all this stuff here…just stick to [learning about] their own religion.”
But I think you have to get to people when they’re young, before their views are fully formed, so we can capture their interest and understanding and help them seek out a diverse group of friends and celebrate with them. I think it’s much easier then, than when they’re older. So, my aim was to try to make the stories kind of cute and interesting.
What’s the reception been so far?
I have gotten very good feedback from kids. There have been some children whose parents sent me videos of them thanking me for the book and telling me how much they liked it. By the time you become a teenager today, and you’re totally immersed in social media, I think it’s a little bit more difficult to see others’ perspectives. You’re more likely to kind of stick to people who believe what you believe, rather than maybe talk to people who maybe have a different slant on things than you might have. So, I think it’s important to educate children, and put them in the right direction when they’re younger. There’s so much hate in the world, but I think the more you’re exposed to other religions, other groups, their traditions, their celebrations, the more likely you’re going to be to open to different opinions, ways of living, and different customs.
Did you observe diverse religious holidays when you were younger?
I felt like [religious diversity] wasn’t talked about, but it was always present, and there was a lot more acceptance. I’m Jewish, and I went to a school that was primarily Jewish, I grew up in a neighborhood that was primarily Jewish, and yet we celebrated the heck out of Christmas.
We would do Christmas carols and dance to Christmas songs, and I thought it was normal. To this day, I love Christmas songs, and my daughter has like 700 Christmas songs on her phone. I don’t know if it’s reality or if it’s just my impression, but there’s a lot more hatred and divisiveness in the world now, and we get the sense now that [celebrating other’s holidays] doesn’t really exist much anymore. There’s a lot more commonality that people don’t recognize in religions.
You can buy copies of Celebrate with Santa and Hanukkah Harry and Celebrate Four Holidays with Santa and Hanukkah Harry on Amazon and Kindle. Previews at santaandharry.com.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
Is This a Time for Bridgebuilding? 5 Leaders in Conversation
American Civic Life
We Commemorate, We Commit: Out of Catastrophe, a Conversation on Connection and Repair