On the second day of Hanukkah, Sophie and I were making our weekly pilgrimage to nursery school. Sophie held her brand-new plush menorah with removable candles in her hot little hands and was singing to herself, “Hanukkah is my fav-or-ite holiday….” Silently, I thought, “until December 25th rolls around.”
The night before we had a small holiday dinner at my mother’s house. It was the first year that Sophie “got it.” She knew we were celebrating, she knew it was somehow related to the fact that we’re Jewish, she knew it meant we’d be eating latkes with people we loved, lighting the candles on menorah, and opening gifts. She wrapped some books from her room in tissue paper, handed it to me and told me, “this is a gift for the Macabees,” which my mother has repeated to anyone who will listen.
As she unwrapped her menorah, her face lit up and she cried, “ooohhhh,” and immediately began inserting the candles. “Remember,” she reminded me, “there are EIGHT days.” “Yes, I remember,” I told her, wondering if she was just charmed by the numbers or if the subtext was that she is expecting eight gifts over the course of the holiday. That night, she begged to sleep with the menorah. I convinced her that it would be nice to put it in the window for everyone passing by to see that we are celebrating Hanukkah. “It’s our holiday decoration,” I told her.
Just a few days earlier we had been driving through our town. I was pointing out the colored lights illuminating many of the homes near ours. Much like the town I grew up in, it’s very Christian and hence, well-decorated. When we were young and out for a drive in December, my sister and I used to make a game of counting the holiday lights on our side of the car…seeing who had the most on the way to our destination. I was hopeful that I could engage Sophie in a more basic form of the game.
It was quiet in the backseat. Then Sophia asked, “Mommy? Can we have holiday decorations?” She said holiday decorations because that was the phrase I used. I have been consciously avoiding the word Christmas. Its not that I’m hiding Christmas from her. We will be celebrating it this year when we go out to visit Kevin’s father in Illinois. I just wanted her to have a clear sense of her own religious culture and traditions before the very-hard-to-compete-with Christmas took the foreground.
I know Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday, as much as it is a way for Jewish kids to not feel left out, or worse, seduced away from their own religion by the very sexy Santa Claus. And that is precisely how I am employing it now.
“Let me talk to Daddy about that,” I stalled. Perhaps we could do a garish electric menorah. Or maybe she would be satisfied by the more colonial-looking single-candle in each window.
I was pleased that, at my mothers, the toy menorah sufficed.
“I am going to show my menorah to all my friends,” Sophie said, “we can count the candles. Remember: there are eight.”
“Can we listen to some music?” I cringed at the thought of listening, once again, to our Music Together albums.
I got an idea, “How about some holiday music? Holiday songs will be playing on the radio now.” I turned on Lite-FM and sure enough, Sarah McLaughlin was singing, “and so this is Christmas….” Sophie’s eyes lit up at the mention of Christmas. It was NOT my imagination. She smiled, listening to the music.
Next was the theme to the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I thought about how much I loved those Charlie Brown specials. How could I deny her the things that I loved and enjoyed? Hadn’t I come to my sense of religion and culture, despite the visits from Santa, the Christmas specials, even the faux 4-ft tree we perched atop dad’s stereo speakers each year? “I bet I could learn to play this,” I told Sophia, pretending to play the cords with one hand as I steered with the other.
“NO! I’m going to play it on my piano at Grandma’s,” she told me.
And then Santa Clause is Coming to Town came on. Sophia looked concerned as Sinatra sang about Santa seeing you while you were sleeping. “Where is Santa?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you when the song is over,” I replied, stalling again.
Do I tell her that Santa is not real? That he’s a character like the ones she reads about in books? Or do I give her the whole schpiel, how he lives up at the North Pole and that we’ll see his helpers everywhere for the next month, trying to get a read on what all the consumers…I mean kids…want for Christmas this year?
The song ended.
“Santa Claus is a little like Cat in the Hat,” I began. “He’s a character that you can read about and think about, and we’ll start to see images of him everywhere.” Just then, we passed a flag with Santa on it on the side of the road—“See? There’s a picture of him right there!” “You’re Jewish, so you celebrate holidays like Hanukkah, and Passover, and Rosh Hashannah…there are people who are Christian, and they celebrate Christmas. Daddy grew up Christian and celebrated Christmas. Now we get to share holidays. We’re Jews and we can share Hanukkah with daddy. He’s Christian and he can share Christmas with us.” That felt right. I didn’t really solve the Santa issue, but the idea of sharing holidays is the foundation. Then Santa becomes okay for me. It’s about appreciating difference in the context of feeling the primacy of her Jewish identity.
Yes, I know this is heavy for a three-year-old. But I tend to aim high, and hope that some kernel of what I say lodges in her brain.
“Oh!” said Sophie. “Hey look! There’s Santa again!”