Oy to the world!
When Child #2 was in preschool, we carpooled with the family of the local baptist minister. One day before Christmas, he was dropping the girls off and he came in to tell me what had happened in the car on the way over.
His daughter was talking about what she was going to ask Santa to bring for Christmas. My own daughter chimed in with news that she got an entire dinner consisting of fried potatoes and jelly donuts, plus her daddy taught her this great game where you get to gamble for chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. AND she would be getting presents every night. For eight nights. His child promptly burst into tears and asked her father (Baptist minister, remember?) why they couldn’t be Jewish.
“This,” he told me, “is going to be hard to explain at church on Sunday.”
Then there was the time four-year-old Child #3 went to visit his friend just before Christmas and was introduced to their family crèche display. When I picked him up, he was still amazed. “Did you know God had a kid? And he kept him in a barn?”
Of course I get the conflict between what my kids learned in Sunday School and the Christmas “message” that encases them from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day like little (circumcised, of course) pickles in a giant aspic. But here’s the thing. There is nothing wrong with those messages. (Well, maybe the aspic.) They are good—no, GREAT—images of giving, of generosity, of joy. As yesterday’s Interpreter column in the New York Times points out, neither holiday is the pure embodiment of their respective religion, but instead an amalgam of traditions and peoples and celebrations often predating either of the religions who assimilated them.
I’ve been happy to have my children enjoy the positive benefits (and, lets face it, MUCH better music!) of Santa and his pals. It hasn’t always been easy. When my first daughter was small, I wanted to do a Christmas tree. I found a “cut your own” farm, talked the Hub into it by assuring him that nobody we know would be there to see us, and we had a terrific time. Until the next day, a Sunday, when the local paper ran a GIANT photo on the top half of the front page, showing my pregnant self, daughter on my shoulders, next to the Hub carrying the Christmas tree.
And then there was the time a few years later, when a reporter from the local TV station called. He’d gotten our name, he told me, from our rabbi when he asked if there was a large local family he could film celebrating Hanukkah. I looked over at the menorah on the mantle next to the Christmas tree, and told him truthfully that we were probably not what the rabbi was picturing.
But since then I’ve regretted turning them down. I think that was EXACTLY the holiday image that would have captured our time and what the holidays really mean. Because to me, they are about celebrating evolving traditions with core values of family, generosity, and love. And jelly donuts and presents.